Toronto

City adamant shelters are not full, while video shows staff saying they're 'at capacity'

Senior managers are adamant occupancy levels at shelters throughout the city are below capacity, even though advocates maintain that people are regularly being turning away.

Coun. Mike Layton admits ‘it is a struggle to keep up with the demand’ at this time

Toronto homeless advocate Doug Johnson posted a video on Twitter, in which staff at a shelter could be heard saying, 'We’re at capacity.' (Jeremy Cohn/CBC)

While the latest city numbers show shelters throughout the city are slightly below capacity, advocates maintain that people are regularly being turned away.

Pastor Doug Johnson Hatlem of Waterloo, Ont., who has years of experience doing outreach work in Toronto, filmed staff at the city's shelter referral office on Peter Street on Thursday night.

In a video clip he shared on social media, a staff member can be heard saying, "We're at capacity," even though the daily occupancy levels at most shelters are listed at under 100 per cent.

"I've long called these beds they say are available 'magical beds,'" Hatlem told CBC News. "They help the city to say we're not at capacity ... but nobody ever gets to sleep in them."

The city numbers for Thursday show the permanent shelter system was 94 per cent full, and Coun. Mike Layton said he trusts the staff who compile that data.

"Most of the respites were in fact at a capacity," Layton added, saying this raises a question. why is this happening, given that the recently-added respite centres, which were meant to be temporary, are supposed to be the last resort when there are no more shelter beds available?

In recent years, the city has been spending more than $10 million on these new shelter structures to address a rapidly growing homeless population.

"The temporary respites house about 300 people and more and more we're reaching and maintaining capacity in those buildings," Layton said.

Coun. Mike Layton says access to housing is the best way to solve the problem of homelessness in the city. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

"So, it's important for us to recognize that despite the fact that we added these temporary emergency beds, they've become quasi-permanent as we actually look to find new spaces to expand our shelter capacity."

Greg Cook, an outreach worker for Sanctuary Ministries Toronto, a charity that helps those in marginal situations, says one only needs to look at how quickly the respite centres are filling up to understand the urgency of the situation.

"Obviously, it's the best choice available," Cook told CBC News.

"I think often when you're sleeping on the street, you are going to take the best choice available. The most important things are safe sleep and food," he said.

"The fact that people are using them, I think they're really important. I have no doubt they are saving lives."

Greg Cook is an outreach worker for Sanctuary Ministries Toronto, a charity that helps those in marginal situations. (Michael Rich/CBC)

At the same time, Cook says better alternatives are needed.

"We need housing. It's awful that people have to sleep in a room, live in a space with 100 other people in there … but I think that in the short term we need to do this because it's an emergency," he said.

Layton agrees that access to housing is the best way to solve the problem of homelessness in the city.

"The number of beds isn't everything. We also have got to look at what is the length of stay, what can we do to keep people from losing their housing and entering the shelter system," he said.

"By limiting the number of people that are entering the shelter system, and then at the other end by helping people find housing and access services that allow them to get the support they need to keep them out of the shelter system, that will help take the pressure off."

Layton also pointed to the city's plan to create 1,000 new beds by 2020.

"They're getting there. They've kind of hit a point where they're finding it difficult to find more space ... but we know eventually even those shelter beds will all get filled, and it is a struggle to keep up with the demand that we are seeing at our shelters at this point," Layton added.

Earlier this week the city unveiled its new winter services plan for homeless people, which includes a new centre in the area of Yonge Street and Finch Avenue for homeless refugee claimants, set to open on Nov. 12.

Operated by Homes First Society, the site will have space for up to 200 adults and will provide overnight accommodation and specialized services through partnerships with community agencies, the city's Newcomer Office and existing city divisions.

The opening of the centre will free 200 beds across Toronto's shelter system, the city says.

The site is one of six new services for homeless people in Toronto available this winter, and through its winter services plan, the city said it is offering more spaces, locations and specialized services for homeless people.

With files from Lauren Pelley, Muriel Draaisma

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