Ontario announces new site of Moss Park respite centre as advocates decry system in 'crisis'

Toronto's homeless and community health advocates spoke out Tuesday on the health impacts of the city's strained shelter system, while Mayor Tory responded with an update on the search for a new permanent shelter.

'My friends are dying': Speakers describe trying conditions in which sleep, medicine and privacy are scarce

David Gordon, who has been homeless on and off for three years, says the conditions in Toronto's shelter system are dire.

Hours after an advocacy meeting that saw several homeless people and shelter volunteers decrying the conditions of the city's shelter system, the city said it's looking for long-term solutions.

Toronto's emergency housing system, a medley of private and public operators juggling thousands of clients on a nightly basis, has been the focus of heavy scrutiny during the extreme cold snaps of recent weeks.

Staff are working to identify a new site for a permanent shelter, the city said Tuesday.

The city also announced that a building at 354 George Street will open Jan. 29 to replace the Moss Park armoury, which was converted into a temporary emergency shelter last week.

The armoury will remain open until the George Street building is ready, Tory said.

He also repeated a call made last week for more emphasis on long-term supportive housing for those with "urgent, unmet" mental health needs, a solution touched on in a meeting Tuesday with Ontario's health and housing ministers.

But for those now sleeping in shelters and temporary warming centres, hope is hard to come by.

"I used to be proud to be from Toronto," said David Gordon. "Now I'm ashamed."

Gordon, a homeless Torontonian who also volunteers at a community health centre in Etobicoke, says that he sees people struggling with depression, anxiety and addiction every day.  

"It's getting to the point where my friends are dying," he said, noting four deaths in the last six months.

"I don't know where I'm going to sleep tonight. It might be at one friend's or another's, or, you know, it's probably going to be the TD Bank at Jameson and Queen."

Gordon once had an apartment in Kingston, Ont., but lost the ability to work after a long struggle with mental illness. He couldn't afford rent on disability payments, he said, or access to the medical help he needed.

"If I phone and say, 'I'm in crisis, I need help,' I should be able to get help now," he said, pointing to four-month appointment delays as a salient reason people end up on the streets. 

"People like me, who have issues, we need help. I shouldn't have to beg for help. I have just as much a right to live in this city as anybody," he said to applause.

Gordon spoke earlier on Tuesday alongside other advocates, who argued that an unseen health crisis is lurking in Toronto's crowded shelters.

Homeless live in state of 'chaos' 

Sharon Mark, who has been living at Sistering, a 24-hour women's drop in, for the past nine months, says exhaustion from disturbed sleep and fast spreading disease are the norm for her now.

She described living with a "complete lack of privacy," and getting sick "over and over again," concluding, "guys, we need help."

Later, community health worker Maurice Adongo from the organization Street Health compared Toronto's shelter system to a refugee camp he'd spent time in, concluding that in many ways, the camp was a better place to be.

"To put it quite frankly, the life of a homeless person in this city today, is something like: chaos today, chaos tomorrow, and chaos forever," said Adongo.

He says the city needs at least 1,000 permanent beds — not just temporary spaces — to take on the crisis.

Also present were local politicians such as city councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Joe Cressy.

A release put out in tandem with the event describes overcrowded shelters that are incapable of taking on the health issues of people who come to them, which include "trauma, chronic disease, developmental disabilities, mental health issues, substance use and acquired brain injuries."

The ask on Tuesday was for more funding to allow for ramped up health care, including primary care, harm reduction, and mental health services.

It came on the same day as the Holy Trinity church's monthly memorial service for people who died as a result of being homeless.

The city launched a program last January that tracks homeless deaths in the city, finding that 70 people died between January and September 2017, the bulk of them middle-aged men.

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp