Concern for city's homeless mounts as Toronto braces for frigid night

As Toronto braces for another frigid night under an extreme cold warning, some Torontonians are clamouring for the city to open up the armouries to people in need of shelter.

City issued statement saying that shelter occupancy was at 95 per cent Saturday night

A man sleeps outside on Dec. 31, 2017 in downtown Toronto. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

As Toronto braces for another frigid night under an extreme cold warning, some Torontonians are clamouring for the city to open up the armouries to homeless people — an idea city council had rejected earlier this month.

Alarm bells were set off Saturday night when volunteers at the Moss Park supervised injection site reported that they were unable to find a shelter to send people to in order to stay warm overnight.

​"I was calling last night, central intake, I was calling directly to the Better Living Centre, and everyone was telling me they were over capacity," said volunteer Gillian Kolla, who said the Moss Park trailer was packed by people looking for just a few minutes out of the cold.

"The shelters are over capacity. They're overworked, they're under-funded," she said. "When you have people who are on mats on the floor and who are frustrated and cold and tired because this is their reality every day, it's a very very tough situation."

Gillian Kolla, who volunteers at the Moss Park supervised injection site, said she was forced to send people out into the cold on Saturday night. (CBC)

The City of Toronto issued a statement Sunday saying that shelter occupancy was in fact at 95 per cent on Saturday night, comparable to average occupancy rates over the last few months.

It said spaces were available at winter respite drop-in centres and the Better Living Centre, which recently opened as a shelter and is located at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds.

"City shelters and respite services are very busy during this extreme cold weather but there is still room to accommodate people seeking respite," it wrote. 

"It's a little bit surprising because that does not correspond to my experience last night on the phone," said Kolla of the statement.

The city also said that the extreme cold warning currently in place has activated additional services, including overnight street outreach and transportation to services. 

'We're not going to be turning anyone away' 

Mark Aston, the executive director of Fred Victor, the charitable organization that runs the Better Living Centre's shelter, told CBC Toronto that Saturday night's miscommunication was "unfortunate."

He said that he thought there may have been confusion among staff at the newly set-up shelter when calls came in. He also said that despite a capacity of 110, they are ready to welcome any and all people who arrive seeking warmth on Sunday night. 

Mark Aston, executive director of the charitable organization responsible for the shelter spaces at the Better Living Centre, said that they will not turn anyone away overnight on Sunday. (CBC)

"We're here, we're open, and we're not going to be turning anyone away tonight," he said. "If people show up and the cots do run out, we'll bring them in anyway." 

To help people make their way there, Aston said the TTC has also re-routed a bus that will run directly to the front door of the shelter. 

30,000 sign petition to open armouries

Meanwhile, a petition demanding that Toronto open the armouries to the homeless continues to add signatures, passing the 30,000 mark as of Sunday afternoon.

Torontonians — including city councillors like Joe Cressy and Kristyn Wong-Tam — are also using social media to amplify the call for the city to take action. 

"I just so value the citizens of Toronto who are popping out of the woodwork and screaming about this," said Cathy Crowe, a street nurse and homeless advocate who started the petition.

Crowe said that since opening the armouries was rejected by council, she and her colleagues have paid close attention to the city's efforts to prop up the strained shelter system.

"I'd been hearing these alarm bells from really trusted colleagues and also homeless people," she said. "What they were saying was there's overflow of bodies everywhere and there's not enough mats for people to sleep on."

Crowe described the lack of space as a "catastrophe," adding that she was extremely concerned that Sunday night would see a repeat of Saturday's confusion, with homeless people unsure where to go for warmth or sleep.

City councillor Paula Fletcher also floated the possibility of an emergency council meeting to reverse the city's decision on the armouries. 

Tory says staff will visit injection site

Mayor John Tory issued a statement late Sunday afternoon expressing a "deep concern" for those out in the cold tonight. 

"Our expert staff continue to believe the Better Living Centre is a better option for a winter respite than the armouries," he wrote. 

He also said that steps were being taken to make sure that people using the supervised injection site had somewhere to go when the trailer closes on Sunday evening. 

"The City outreach team will visit the Moss Park overdose prevention site tonight before it closes to ensure anyone who needs shelter is able to access it," he wrote. 

Gift cards can be 'ticket' to temporary warmth

Kolla said that as people left the Moss Park site Saturday night, she handed out Tim Hortons gift cards so people would have somewhere to seek warmth.

Crowe said gift cards are one way that Torontonians can help the city's most vulnerable tonight.

"It's their ticket to stay alive that night, because they can sit in the Tim Hortons for a couple of hours with a coffee," she said, adding that people should also "make a simple phone call or email to the mayor as well, otherwise the next night that person's going to need another gift card."