Toronto to open 400 shelter spaces, but won't ask for armouries to be opened to homeless

Toronto city council approved sweeping measures Wednesday to protect homeless people as winter closes in, including $10 million in funding to add 400 more shelter spaces, but ignored the demands of anti-homeless activists who wanted local armouries opened as soon as possible.

Shelters exceeding city's own guidelines, activists say women facing greatest risk

Toronto city council approved opening more homeless shelter spaces ahead of the cold winter months, but won't ask Ottawa to open two local armouries. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Toronto city council approved sweeping measures Wednesday to protect homeless people as winter closes in, including $10 million in funding to add 400 more shelter spaces, but ignored the demands of anti-homeless activists who wanted local armouries opened as soon as possible.

Coun. Joe Mihevc, the city's poverty reduction advocate, introduced a 16-point motion that includes the plans Mayor John Tory unveiled last weekend, which was approved 39-3.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, nearly in tears as she implored councillors to support her plan — which included a call to ask Ottawa to open the armouries before the end of 2017 — was disappointed to see it fail 17-25. It's unclear how much her plan would have cost.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, centre, hosted a news conference with anti-homeless activists who warn women in this city often face the greatest risks. (John Rieti/CBC)

Those who work with homeless people every day were also left fuming.

"Shame on you! This council won't even ask for the armouries," yelled activist Gaétan Héroux, who demonstrated with Ontario Coalition Against Poverty members at city hall this week. 

As he was being escorted from the council chamber, Héroux barked at Tory to give him his phone, so he could ask Ottawa to open the armouries himself.

"There are people dying on the streets. When they die we'll be here," he said.

More than 70 homeless people have already died this year, according to Toronto Public Health statistics. That's nearly two people every week.

Tory says city not ruling anything out

Coun. Gord Perks warned council there could be a "life and death" difference between the two policies. But Mihevc defended his plans, telling reporters they will make "major, major" improvements for homeless people in this city. 

Mihevc says the biggest reason not to open the armouries is that the city doesn't own them, and he wants to see the city's options exhausted before that happens.

Tory, in his final remarks, says what council approved doesn't rule anything out, and vowed the city will be monitoring the situation on its streets.

Amid council's debate, MP Adam Vaughan tweeted out that the federal government is ready to help. "We're prepared to have that conversation," he told CBC Toronto.

Vaughan said that offer stands in the future, as well.

"If Canadians are in harm's way … of course we'll have that conversation. It's our responsibility," he said, noting the city would have to ask, as the military can't act proactively in situations like this.

Homeless women at risk

The city's plan calls for adding spaces to existing shelters while also converting respite stations into places where people can sleep. It will also open some local motels to the homeless. 

Earlier Wednesday, a group of activists warned that may not help at-risk women.

Rev. Maggie Helwig, a priest with St. Stephens in the Fields, said women, including those fleeing violence, sometimes along with their children, often don't feel safe staying in co-ed shelters and drop-ins.

"I'm sorry that we are making Mayor Tory angry, but we need 400 beds immediately," she told reporters, referring to the mayor's recent interview with Metro Morning where he expressed frustration at the criticism of his shelter plan.

"We need this. We need it now. Women are dying. Children are homeless. This is unacceptable."

Wong-Tam's motion called for the creation of at least 100 spaces for women and gender non-binary people.

5,382 people slept in shelters last night, staff say

Mihevc urged council to focus on what needs to be done to expand a system that hasn't significantly grown in the last decade, despite the fact that housing prices have soared over the same timeframe. His motion also contains long-term plans to expand the shelter system, something the other levels of government will be asked to support.  

Shelters in the city were running at 95 per cent capacity last night, with 5,382 using the 5,651 beds available in Toronto, City shelter staff confirmed on the council floor.

The city's guidelines say to operate shelters at less than 90 per cent capacity, although that target is frequently exceeded.

About the Author

John Rieti is the senior producer of digital at CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country. In Toronto, he's covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. Outside of work, catch him cycling in search of the city's best coffee.


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