Toronto seems to have learned from last winter’s shelter debacle

Posted on in Inclusion Debates – Opinion/Editorials
Nov. 12, 2018.   By

Last winter it seemed as though the City of Toronto’s big plan was to hope that Mother Nature’s worst would pass the city by.

Sure, the parks department turned off the water in the few remaining public fountains and tossed around some road salt. But the shelter division, which provides for some of the city’s most needy and vulnerable residents, didn’t do nearly enough to prepare for the onslaught of winter.

And when the extreme cold weather did arrive and people needed a warm place to take refuge, the city’s emergency shelter and respite system was completely overwhelmed. There was confusion about what was open and where space was available, and terrible conditions in some of the overcrowded facilities.

Even when the crisis was obvious to everyone, the city still hesitated for weeks before opening additional spaces. It was a catastrophe and one that was foreseeable given how full Toronto’s permanent shelter system is on a near daily basis.

Those failures were top of mind as the head of Toronto’s shelter and housing support division rolled out this winter’s plans. The city is intent on avoiding a repeat of last year’s mess and the new plan is an improvement.

It calls for hundreds of new spaces in three prefabricated structures located across the central city that will be open 24 hours a day. It includes a temporary site with up to 200 spots at the Queen Elizabeth Building at Exhibition Place, due to open on Thursday. And the city has budgeted for more staff to improve operations at respite facilities and coordination of services across the system.

It adds up to a system that should be more flexible and responsive to the needs of the homeless. Yet, once again, the timeline for opening beds in some of these new facilities — not until late January — may prove to be far too late if extreme cold weather comes early.

Toronto’s homeless shelters have been struggling to keep up with demand as more people are driven from their homes by the region’s affordable housing crisis. At the same time, the system is increasingly called on to provide for refugee claimants and asylum seekers coming from the United States.

Toronto council has already committed to adding 1,000 beds to the shelter system by the end of 2020, and 100 of those are set to be open by the end of this year. Those beds are certainly needed, but opening ever more permanent shelter beds is not a long-term solution.

People need a home, not a shelter bed. The city, along with Queen’s Park and Ottawa, must increase efforts to create more affordable and supportive housing.

But with winter setting in the city rightly sees that it can’t leave those who need help now out in the cold.

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