City says Moss Park Armoury to open Monday as winter respite centre

The federal government has accepted the city's request to temporarily make the Moss Park Armoury a winter respite centre, providing up to 100 new spaces for the city's homeless.

100 beds to be available for 2 weeks starting Monday morning, as province looks for long-term solutions

Some members of Toronto's homeless community bedding down at Moss Park Armoury on January 14, 1999, during an infamously snowy winter that saw temperatures dipping down to as low as -24 C. (Canadian Press)

The federal government has accepted the city's request to temporarily make the Moss Park Armoury a winter respite centre, providing up to 100 new spaces for the city's homeless.

The armoury will open Monday morning, Paul Raftis, head of the city's shelter system, said on Friday evening, citing necessary preparation time. 

"We need this weekend to be able to set up and to serve a hundred people at this location," he told reporters.

Environment Canada is forecasting a low of –25 C in Toronto Friday night, while temperatures are expected to rise to 1 C on Monday.

Anyone using the city's newest warming centres, which opened Thursday night at Regent Park Community Centre and Metro Hall, will be moved into the armoury on Monday, Raftis said.

The two warming centres sheltered 15 and 13 people, respectively, overnight on Thursday.

When it opens, the armoury will be available 24 hours a day for two weeks, according to the Ministry of Public Safety.

Approval to use the armoury as a temporary shelter falls to the federal government, who received an official request from the province earlier this week. ​"There is a protocol," said Adam Vaughan, MP for Spadina–Fort York.

The federal government said the province will confirm a longer-term solution.

"While our immediate priority is to keep people safe, we also working to address the systemic issues that lead to this problem through historic federal investments in affordable housing," Vaughan said. 

"This has got to stop. Nobody should be tolerating 5,000 people a day in and out of shelters. It's a solvable problem."

Opening nearby building may be next step

  Ontario Housing Minister Peter Milczyn said in a statement Friday evening that the province is "fully committed to providing a longer-term solution to meet the city's need for a seventh 24/7 respite centre."

He added that the province would know more "very soon" after meeting with the city and the Ontario health minister.

Mayor John Tory also issued a statement Friday evening suggesting the city may open a shelter in a nearby building after the armoury's two weeks are up.

The province indicated the location "could be prepared as a winter respite site for the duration of the winter months, while the armoury is used as a temporary measure," he said.

  On Thursday, Tory called for a longer term solution.

"What is needed is not just permanent shelter beds, but supportive housing," Tory said, calling the current landscape a "crisis."

Armoury has opened before in extreme weather 

In a news conference on Thursday, Mayor John Tory said the city is currently operating six winter respite centres. The armoury would provide up to 100 new spaces.

Tory has faced mounting criticism for his previous refusals to open the armouries as shelters run at near-capacity. He voted against exploring the use of the armouries in a motion presented to council on Dec. 6, 2017.

Although MP Adam Vaughan originally said the armoury could open Friday evening, city officials later announced the building wouldn't be ready until Monday morning. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

The armoury at Moss Park was previously used as a shelter during a particularly brutal winter over 20 years ago, in 1996.

It opened again as an emergency measure in January of 1999, when nearly a metre of snow was dumped on the city in just two weeks.

The building now houses a military regiment, which uses the location for training.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Armed Forces told CBC Toronto that those using the armoury to stay out of the cold should have access to bathrooms and showers in the facility, as well as a large gymnasium.