Toronto faith leaders urge city to call shelter emergency, open 400 beds

Toronto's religious sites have given homeless people shelter for decades, but now heartbroken faith leaders are warning the city that they can't do any more.

City shelters are over-capacity, while nearly 2 homeless people die every week

The Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness is demanding that the city declare an emergency and open 400 more shelter beds. 'It's up to you, Mayor Tory. Stop. These. Homeless. Deaths. Now,' said Rafi Aaron, as he stood at the podium. (John Rieti/CBC)

Toronto's religious sites have given homeless people shelter for decades, but now heartbroken faith leaders are warning the city that they can't do any more.

The Interfaith Coalition to Fight Homelessness is demanding that the city declare an emergency in its shelter system and immediately open 400 more beds. The coalition is also calling on the city to make sure 1,000 more shelter spaces are open by the end of next year.

Rafi Aaron, the group's spokesperson, says if that doesn't happen, churches running Out of the Cold programs will be stuck in the terrible position of turning people away in their time of need.

"It's gut-wrenching. And it's something we shouldn't have to do," he told reporters at city hall on Tuesday, flanked by members of the group holding black cardboard tombstones.

Toronto's shelters are operating over capacity, something that's been happening for some time. At the same time, nearly two homeless people are dying every week, according to Toronto Public Health statistics.

A 2013 report released by the city found there were around 5,000 homeless people in Toronto. Street nurse Cathy Crowe says some 500 of those people are are sleeping outdoors. 

That same study is set to be conducted again next year.

After the news conference, Aaron's group held a moment of silence for those who have died on city streets this year, before marching to Mayor John Tory's office where the tombstones were left leaning against the glass.

Group says mayor has to lead on shelter issue

Councillors will discuss how to expand the number of shelter options at a meeting next week. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Bishop Jenny Andison says in addition to shelter and meal programs, her church is now hosting funerals.

"Homeless deaths in Toronto are not statistics for us," she said.

"Many of them are people we know by name, people we've loved and who have loved us. They're members of our communities."

City shelters are running over capacity right now, while demand appears to be mounting. Aaron and others repeatedly called the situation a crisis, one they say they expect the mayor to make a top priority.

Tory "has repeatedly asked the faith communities to help the marginalized in any way they can … We can't do any more," he said.

"It's up to you, Mayor Tory. Stop. These. Homeless. Deaths. Now," he said, driving his hand into the podium.

Tory won't declare emergency

Tory says he won't declare an emergency, based on the advice of the city solicitor that such declarations should only be made when council isn't available to meet.

Councillors will meet starting next Tuesday, and Tory says he has directed staff to present some new options to handle the shortage of shelter beds.

"It's a very serious situation. I understand that," he said.

"I want it to be the case that people who need shelter during the colder months can find that shelter."

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam says if Tory won't declare an emergency, he needs to have a plan. She wants to see the Fort York and Moss Park armouries open as emergency shelters, even though city staff say they're not suitable spaces.

Wong-Tam says staff should re-evaluate the criteria it's using to decide on potential shelter sites in light of the huge demand on the system right now, while also demanding the city step up on other fronts.

In one of the best cities in the world, she asked, "why are so many people sleeping rough?"

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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