Toronto city council under pressure from health-care workers, Feist to add shelters

Health-care workers are blasting the conditions inside Toronto's emergency respite centres, which are now being used to shelter more than 500 people per night.

Council agrees to study feasibility of adding 1,500 new shelter beds

Hundreds of homeless people in Toronto are now relying on temporary respite sites, many of which don't meet the city's own shelter standards, according to a group of health-care workers. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Health-care workers are blasting the conditions inside Toronto's emergency respite centres, which are now being used to shelter more than 500 people per night.

The Health Providers Against Poverty (HPAP) group dropped a report highlighting its concerns as city council debated the work that's being done to bolster the shelter system. HPAP is demanding the city speed up its efforts to build new shelter spaces, and says the target should be 1,500 new beds — that's 500 more than the city had been planning for. 

Here's what the group reports finding during visits to eight of the city's winter respite stations and two drop-in warming centres:

  • None of the sites had mattresses to sleep on, which doesn't meet the city's shelter standard.
  • Only two sites met the standard for space between cots, while none provided pillows or blankets.
  • Every site had toilet paper and soap.
  • Only one site met the standard of one shower per 20 people, while four sites lacked any showers.

Dr. Michaela Beder said she was shocked by the conditions inside one respite centre when she went looking for a patient. She said belongings were strewn everywhere, and there was no safe place for shelter users to put important items like medication.

"I wondered 'are there dead bodies under there?'" she told reporters at a packed city hall news conference.

Musician Leslie Feist, a longtime resident of Toronto's west end, also came to the event to throw her star power behind the call to open more shelters. She told reporters she felt she could no longer stand by and watch people struggle with homelessness in this city. Adrienne Clarkson, Sarah Polley and Margaret Atwood have also spoken out on this issue.

Council to study report's recommendations

Today's is the first council meeting since December, when the mayor and a majority of councillors voted against opening local armouries to the homeless — something that had to be done over the holiday season as extreme cold put thousands at risk.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who successfully moved a motion asking city staff to study HPAP's demands, is warning that while some on council are saying the city has done enough to respond to this issue, it hasn't.

"This is a crisis. This is an emergency," she said. 

On the council floor, Coun. Joe Cressy suggested the city is still failing homeless people. His questions to the general manager of shelter services revealed about 5,800 people were in the shelter system last night, with a further 561 in temporary spaces. Meanwhile, some 180,000 people are still on the waiting list for social housing in Toronto. 

Other councillors suggested Toronto is doing well despite the challenges.

"It seems that the city of Toronto is a destination point for people in need," said Coun. John Campbell, who recently visited a respite centre with Cressy. 

The Etobicoke councillor suggested the city needs to look to the province for more help, given how many people from the GTA and further abroad are winding up here.

Coun. Norm Kelly echoed that need for provincial and federal support, saying "we are dependent on the generosity of others."

However, Coun. Janet Davis questioned staff about how much has been spent on shelters in recent years, hearing back that only $2 million has been added despite inflationary costs that have swelled by some 20 per cent over the same time. "Wow," she replied.

This year's budget for shelter services is set to go up by $21.8 million.


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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