Homeless shelter demand rising in Ontario as facilities close

More people are accessing shelters in Ontario than they were five years ago, but with more facilities closing their doors the remaining shelters are overflowing.

Shelters operating at 90 per cent capacity as 12,000 Ontarians homeless each night

The numbers of homeless people in Ontario have been rising over the past five years, but dozens of shelters have closed across the province. (CBC News)

More people are accessing shelters in Ontario than they were five years ago, but with more facilities closing their doors the remaining shelters are overflowing. 

In 2016, the province had 310 shelters in operation, 30 less than in 2011, according to Statistics Canada.

The closures amounted to the loss of an estimated 1,000 shelter beds — a sizable chunk of the now-existing 11,000 places.

It is unknown what prompted the closures. 

With about 12,000 people experiencing homelessness in Ontario each night, the federal government says shelters are operating at 90 per cent capacity. Several shelters in Ottawa and Toronto said they are so full they've been filling the hallways with sleeping mats. 

The province doesn't keep a tally of shelter closures in Ontario, as they don't manage them directly. Funding from the ministries trickles down through municipalities and charities into the facilities. The Ontario government didn't have a technical definition of homelessness until 2015.

During the 2016 census, 8,780 people in Ontario declared a shelter as their primary residence, a 10 per cent increase from the 7,960 individuals in 2011 — something shelter directors say is worrisome. 

"There are a lot of people in crisis and needing supports and often shelters are their first point of contact," said Deirdre Freiheit, executive director of Shepherds of Good Hope. 

"We don't want people to be staying long term in shelters. We try to identify housing immediately."

Housing waitlist growing

Finding a permanent place to call home is a nearly impossible task. 

Over 170,000 households are on the waiting list for affordable housing in Ontario and the average wait time is four years, according to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association.

"We need to actually have housing to provide for them so they can move out of the shelters quickly," Freiheit said.

Despite her calls for improvement, the average length of stay in a shelter is more than one month, according to a report by Employment and Social Development Canada.

In 2014, the provincial government released a five-year poverty reduction strategy with a focus on homelessness. They currently devote $324 million each year to helping people avoid homelessness. 

'Our beds are full'

Focusing on a "housing first" strategy, the Ministry of Housing is trying to eliminate the hoops that people typically have to jump through to make it from the streets into a home. However, the province doesn't do any direct work on the ground, choosing instead to fund "service managers" — such as NGOs — in municipalities.

"Service managers have the flexibility to determine how best to respond to local needs," said Praveen Senthinathan, a spokesperson for the ministry. 

"Our government believes that every one of us deserves the security of knowing we'll have a safe place to lay our heads at night."

The Shepherds of Good Hope shelter in downtown Ottawa is so full they often have to put sleeping mats on the hallway floors.

Despite the significant increase in resources being directed at the problem, workers on the ground said the help isn't coming fast enough and their shelters are overflowing. 

"We're pretty much full in terms of emergency shelter beds all year round," said Shirley Roy, community relations manager with the Ottawa Mission shelter. 

"We put down mats because our beds are full. We have been that way for the last few years."