There’s money for police and the World Cup. So why did council give the cold shoulder to warming centres?

Posted on February 9, 2023 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Columnists
Feb. 9, 2023.   By Edward Keenan, City Columnist

Council was asked to keep warming centres open every day and night through the rest of this winter — and decided not to.

I want to rant about the approach to dealing with homelessness displayed at this week’s city council meeting, but first, an observation about hockey commentary.

If you watch a lot of professional hockey, or read a lot about it — and I do; it is a glorious escape when, for instance, I despair over a deadly serious issue in the city — you’ll hear commentators talking about goaltending. Often, when they’re looking at a goal, what they’ll say is, “He’s just got to make a save there.”

As analysis, this isn’t particularly enlightening — what did the goalie need to do differently? You have the sense the commentators don’t really know the answer to that. They just know it would be better for the goalie’s team if he had stopped the puck. “He’s just gotta make a save there.” It sounds simple when you put it like that.

In the end, what they are often implying is that it looks to them like a basically competent goalie needs to be able to stop a puck like the one they’re looking at.

Sometimes when I’m writing about public policy, I’m aware of the potential for Gotta-Make-a-Save-There-itis. I say the mayor or council aren’t doing this thing they should do. Maybe it sounds like I think solving these problems is easy. Generally, I don’t.

Many of the issues the city debates are wickedly complex and subject not only to competing interests but to competing good-faith understandings of what could work. I can’t pretend I always know all the details of how our leaders should respond, even when I’m pointing out that what they’re doing doesn’t seem likely to help.

Which brings me to the case of this week’s motion before city council that asked that so-called “warming centres” for homeless people be opened every day — and more importantly every night — through the rest of this winter.

Forgive me, but this is a case where council has just gotta make a save. And it’s a case in which they failed to do so.

The motion regarding warming centres, currently municipal buildings like Metro Hall or Scarborough Civic Centre that only open in extreme weather (automatically when it’s forecast below -15 C), was not any kind of solution to the housing affordability crisis, or the homelessness crisis, or the tangle of social and economic problems that both cause and result from them. This motion, debated at length and defeated on a tie vote on Wednesday, didn’t set out to solve those problems.

The problem it set out to solve, in a nutshell, was this: there will be people on our street tonight, more than 100 people, who have no place to go that is safe and warm. The city owns big heated buildings that are empty at night. We could unlock the doors and let them sit inside.

Of course, as we heard at length from allies of the mayor who supported a competing motion from Coun. Michael Thompson, it isn’t quite so simple: you need staff to supervise, and there are standards for such buildings, and so on and so forth. But seriously: this is Canada, and it is winter, and there are people with nowhere else to go to get out of the cold and the wet and the wind. They will be out there tonight. And tomorrow. And the day after that.

Council decided not to give them a place to go.

Instead, they made yet another request to the provincial and federal governments to chip in dollars to help out. And they asked city staff to bring a report in April — after this season’s cruelest cold is done — on how to better approach this problem. Councillor Thompson repeatedly insisted, citing staff members’ testimony to council, both that the city lacked the resources to open the warming centres 24/7 (at a reported cost of approximately $400,000 per month), and that the city’s current shelter system “has the ability to meet the need” without doing so.

On the first question, one might ask how the city found the resources to suddenly put dozens of police in the transit system, or to plan on spending hundreds of millions hosting World Cup games, or to rebuild the Gardiner Expressway, or to increase the mayor’s office budget by $800,000. Resources are stretched, but we can all see that where there is a will, we have the wallet.

And on the second question, whether the city currently “has the ability” to meet the need on the street or not, they manifestly are not meeting that need. In January, we heard at the meeting, even as the city provides emergency shelter of one sort or another to more than 9,000 people each night, more than 100 people per day who call looking for shelter space are turned away because there aren’t any spaces for them. As Star contributor Matt Elliott pointed out in his newsletter this week, on most nights this year that the warming centres have been open, they have been well over 90 per cent capacity (and sometimes at 100 per cent capacity).

Yes, the city needs to also build out its longer-term housing strategy, as it is doing. Yes, there is more that could be done to help with life skills and addiction and mental health support to prevent some of the conditions that contribute to homelessness. Yes, the provincial and federal governments provide shamefully little to help out. The bigger issues aren’t simple. But today, right now, this winter, given the current situation, they didn’t need to solve all the deeper problems once and for all.

They just needed to make a save. Unlock the warming centres and let people get out of the cold. It’s perhaps the least we could do to prevent suffering we know is out there. We won’t do it.

On the ice in a hockey arena, when a goalie lets a soft one by, a team might lose a game. On the icy Toronto streets, when our city government fails to act, lives are at stake.

Do we do the best we can, today, to alleviate suffering, today? Wednesday, our city council decided the answer is no.

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