Why Toronto libraries are a hot spot for the homeless

Some Toronto public libraries are becoming a popular spot for homeless men and women who have nowhere else to go.

Where the homeless go when there's few places to turn

James Donahue tells Stephanie Matteis about why he and others turn to the library for shelter. (Chris Gargus)

On any given day at the Lillian H. Smith library on College Street there are bedraggled men with belongings in bags sleeping at the tables or reading.

Many of them told CBC Toronto they don't have anywhere else to go.

James Donahue was there keeping warm.

The 30-year-old describes himself as part of the hidden homeless, having worked out a system to keep his homelessness a secret... until now.

Donahue and other men who identified themselves as homeless say the libraries are a destination for them after shelter and drop-in services close for the day.

Even though the Assessment and Referral Centre at 129 Peter St. never closes, Donahue shakes his head and feels it hasn't met his needs.

"The way it's set up is not fit for getting somebody on the right path."

A 28-year-old homeless man who requested anonymity told CBC Toronto "after the shelters close, after the breakfast and the lunch wrap there aren't a lot of places" for people to go and "often people spill out to the library."

Moe Hosseini-Ara, the Toronto Public Library's director of branch operations and customer experience, knows a lot of library branches in the downtown core are used by the homeless population.

"I do feel that the prevalence and the numbers have increased," Hosseini-Ara said. "We're there for the entire community."

James Donahue and a man who identified himself as "Hollywood" talk to Stephanie Matteis outside the Lillian H. Smith library. (Chris Gargus)

On Wednesday, when CBC Toronto was at the library on College Street, there were also three security guards, who deal with library disruptions.

Hosseini-Ara says that's not exclusive to downtown locations, though he did say the library is training more staff to handle clients with poor mental health.

The Lillian H. Smith library and the Peter Street shelter referral service are both in Joe Cressy's Trinity-Spadina ward.

Cressy says council's goal is a 90-per-cent shelter occupancy level and it is currently at 95 per cent, "which means we do not have enough shelter spaces for the people who need them right now."

Shelters 'not the solution,' Cressy says

While shelters "are not the solution," he says, "they are a critical harm reduction stop-gap to keep people safe and to keep people warm in the winter."

Hosseini-Ara says library services partners with Toronto's public health and social services to "work with them to see what we can do as a part of the organizations in the community that can assist."

The branches are also seasonally designated as warming and cooling areas in the city.

And the libraries are revising the system of requiring identification and a home address to use services at branches.