Calls for shelter standards intensify as 'shocking' conditions highlighted for city council

Frontline workers and advocates were at city hall on Wednesday to push council to draft a set of standards for existing shelters and to act on a request to build 1,500 new permanent shelter beds.

'We're starting to show the conditions and people are outraged by it,' said street nurse Cathy Crowe

Some 700 people have been forced to sleep on floors at shelters and respite centres as demand has overwhelmed the city's system. This photo was taken at Margaret's Toronto East Drop-In Centre. (Supplied)

Frontline workers and advocates are at city hall on Wednesday to push council to draft a set of standards for existing shelters and to act on a request to build 1,500 new, permanent shelter beds.

According to Cathy Crowe, a street nurse with deep ties to Toronto's homeless community, the scenarios playing out in shelters this winter have hastened the need for universal standards. On a recent tour of Magaret's Toronto East Drop-In Centre at All Saints Church on Dundas Street East, Crowe was "moved to tears" after witnessing the living conditions inside. 

"What I saw was horrifying. Just a sea of people, wall to wall, on the floor. Some on mats, some not. It was dark, it was cold. There are no doors on the toilets. There are no showers," she said in an interview with Metro Morning

"I've never seen this. To me, it was like pictures from a refugee camp. It was shocking."

Numbers from the city and verified by frontline workers suggest that each night this winter, some 700 people have been left to sleep on crowded floors at various winter respite centres. Mayor John Tory acknowledged earlier this month that unprecedented demand for shelter space, particularly during cold snaps, has at times overwhelmed the city's capacity to house all those in need.

We're starting to show the conditions and people are outraged by it.- Cathy Crowe, street nurse and advocate

After criticisms of the city's handling of the issue reached crescendo in late December, the federal government agreed to open the Moss Park Armoury as a temporary shelter with 100 beds. 

For more than 30 years, Toronto has depended largely on the faith-based Out of the Cold programs to assist in providing safe shelter for homeless people during the winter. But Crowe points out that, despite requests from the program's administrators for a set of standards that would cover things like basic hygiene requirements, none are in place.

The situation at Margaret's drop-in centre — "a warehousing of people" — illustrates the need for standards, she said.

"We're starting to show the conditions and people are outraged by it," she told host Matt Galloway. "We can do better."

'The numbers themselves speak'

Crowe will present city council with a 34-page document on Wednesday, laying out the case for 1,500 new, permanent shelter beds, a demand that until recently was met with resistance from both the mayor and some key councillors. 

"The numbers themselves speak. Who ever would have realized that we would have over 700 people sleeping on church basement floors? The numbers are increasing weekly," she said. 
There are no doors to the washrooms at Margaret's, and no showers, prompting some observers to compare conditions there to a refugee camp. (Supplied)

This week, Tory signalled that his position on the need for more beds has begun to shift. On Tuesday, he signed an open letter calling for, among other things, keeping the city's seven winter respite centres open beyond their scheduled closing date of April 15, having staff immediately start planning for next winter, and a review into the possibility of constructing 1,000 new shelter beds.

"The shelter system is straining under the incredible demand for service. Reports from front-line workers and service providers for the past four years have indicated that shelters are at capacity every night, regardless of the weather," the letter reads. 

It was drafted by progressive councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam of Toronto Centre-Rosedale and Joe Cressy of Trinity-Spadina. Besides the mayor, it is co-signed by the chairs of the city's budget committee and affordable housing committee. 

"It has become clear that more is needed to respond to the incredible demand in the city," it says.