Activists pushing to open Toronto's armouries for emergency shelter

More than 1,300 people have signed a petition launched by street nurse and activist Cathy Crowe, calling on Mayor John Tory to request use of the two armouries at Fort York and Moss Park from the Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan.

More than 1,300 people have signed petition calling on Mayor John Tory to request opening of 2 armouries

Street nurse Cathy Crowe is calling on Mayor John Tory to support the opening of Toronto's two armouries as emergency shelter. (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

Freezing temperatures and over-capacity shelters have led to a push from housing advocates to open Toronto's two armouries for emergency use by the city's homeless community.

So far, more than 1,300 people have signed a petition launched by street nurse and activist Cathy Crowe, calling on Mayor John Tory to request use of the two armouries at Fort York and Moss Park from the Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan.

"I am shocked by the level of crowding in both the shelter system, the Out of the Cold program...The warming centres are no longer enough to meet the need," Crowe wrote in a letter to Tory.

Speaking to CBC Toronto on Sunday, she also said dozens of beds have been lost at Seaton House, Toronto's largest homeless shelter, due to a serious Strep A outbreak.

"We do not have the shelter spaces or capacity to support the people who need them right now," echoed Joe Cressy, city councilor for Ward 20.

'Things are only going to get worse'

Cressy noted a potential reduction in shelter staff coming in 2017 which could mean "things are only going to get worse."

"The rationale is that the mayor asked every department to find 2.6 per cent in savings this year," he said. "As we know all too often, you can't spend less and get more."

Cressy said the city deems shelters at-capacity when they are 90 per cent full, but the system was at 95 per cent capacity this year before the cold weather even hit.

That means many people are out in the cold — while others endure over-crowded shelters.

Kevin Durance, who has been recently staying at St. Felix Centre in Toronto, said crowded shelters can lead to problems. (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

Kevin Durance, who has been recently staying at St. Felix Centre in Toronto, supports the idea of opening armouries, and said crowded shelters can lead to problems.

"With even less space, it brings out aggression," he said. "People aren't fed properly, they're grumpy."

City 'working hard' to provide shelter beds

The mayor's office has responded to Crowe's letter, saying "the City is working hard to make sure there are sufficient shelter beds for those in need."

The response noted an additional $2 million in funding was slotted for the General Manager of Shelter, Support & Housing Administration at the city council meeting in November. It also cited various initiatives including the opening of several shelters, drop-in programs, and funding the Out of the Cold program to provide an additional 120 spaces.

In regards to federal armouries being used as added shelter, the letter said it's a step included in the Winter Readiness Plan.

"But City staff do not believe [armouries] provide adequate or appropriate shelter space, which is why they are working with all City divisions, other levels of government and not-for-profit sector to find more appropriate places for vulnerable individuals, including decommissioned schools," the letter continued.

Crowe isn't satisfied with the response.

On four previous occasions, the armouries have been opened as emergency shelter, she noted.

"We don't need more deaths to prove the need," Crowe said.

With files from Laura DaSilva, Laura Howells