Toronto ombudsman blasts city's handling of shelter crisis

Toronto's ombudsman says the city was providing "outdated, inaccurate and inconsistent" information amid this winter’s shelter crisis.

Susan Opler highlights concerns about conditions inside winter respite sites

Toronto's ombudsman says in at least two confirmed cases, homeless people were given incorrect information about the capacity of one emergency winter respite site. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Toronto's ombudsman says the city provided "outdated, inaccurate and inconsistent" information during this winter's shelter crisis.

Susan Opler's new report says, in at least two instances, that city officials provided incorrect information about the capacity at the Better Living Centre — an emergency respite centre opened to homeless people amid a period of extreme cold weather that started in late December.

"It is only reasonable to infer that they gave out this sort of misinformation in more instances than just the ones we investigated," Opler said in a news release.

Some had no showers. Most had no ramps, elevators or accessible toilet facilities. None had beds or cots to accommodate people with mobility challenges.- Susan Opler, Toronto ombudsman on conditions at winter respite sites

That finding confirms the claims of homeless advocates, who sounded the alarm about people being turned away from some facilities.

Rafi Aaron, a spokesperson for the Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness, says the city brought the problems on itself by refusing to open more shelter beds ahead of the winter months. In early December, council voted down a call to open two local armouries, only to see the Moss Park facility opened to the public months later after a huge public outcry.

Council "could have put everything in fast gear ahead of that and you could have prevented a lot of suffering," Aaron told CBC Toronto.

"It's really past the point of saying I told you so. It's really sad, that's all."

Street nurse Cathy Crowe says the report backs up everything homeless advocates warned the city about.

"They ignored us," she said.

City statistics showed 97 homeless people died in Toronto last year — that's nearly two deaths per week.

Aaron says while it is warming up outside, the city still has major shelter issues to contend with. This week the Out of the Cold program, run from various churches across the city, finished for the season, meaning there will be more pressure on other facilities.

He says the city needs to improve the base number of shelters it has over the summer and make serious progress on opening 1,000 beds. Otherwise, he warns, next winter could be just as bad.

Services inside respite sites also criticized

The ombudsman's report highlights problems within shelters, including low temperatures. This photo was taken at Margaret's Toronto East Drop-In Centre. (Supplied)

Opler also takes aim at a confusing system, noting the city uses at least 12 different terms for places where people can seek shelter, from "respite drop-ins" to "winter overnight services."

She also calls the services at some of those locations "unacceptable."

"It was much too cold … inside one of the winter respite sites," Opler says, noting at one site the indoor temperature hovered between 11 and 14 C.

"Some had no showers. Most had no ramps, elevators or accessible toilet facilities. None had beds or cots to accommodate people with mobility challenges," she said.

That finding is similar to the results of a review conducted by health-care workers.

'We can do better,' mayor says

Mayor John Tory says the city is working to improve how it communicates information about shelter capacity. (John Rieti/CBC)

Mayor John Tory admits the city struggled with communication, but says he's encouraged that staff are already working on improving the system.

"The staff of the city have said, unreservedly and without qualification, they accept every one of the recommendations made by the ombudsman," Tory told reporters.

"This is the kind of response you want to see."

When pressed on why the city hasn't done more to improve its shelter system in previous years, Tory said council just voted to up the budget for the city's Shelter Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) division, and is keeping an eye on the situation.

However, he said, "I think there's no question we can do better, and we're trying continuously to do better in all respects.

City working on fixes

Opler says the SSHA is working on new standards for winter respite sites.

During the course of her investigation, Opler made nine recommendations to improve services. Now, she's issuing nine more, including developing a new system to track the occupancy inside winter respites.

Opler is also recommending the city consult with those using the respites to see how they can be improved in the future.

Those recommendations have been accepted by SSHA and the city, she says. 

Crowe says the big decision facing the city now is what respite sites to keep open past April 15, and whether or not new ones should be opened.

She also wants city sites to immediately ensure there's adequate separation between sleeping spaces.

About the Author

John Rieti

John Rieti covers city hall and city issues for CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country in search of great stories. Outside of work, catch him running or cycling around, often armed with a camera, always in search of excellent coffee.