Toronto homeless shelters at max capacity despite mild summer

Toronto's emergency shelters have been operating at near capacity this summer, which is troubling, observers say, given that it's been a fairly temperate summer thus far.

Advocates call for greater transparency in shelter reports

Emergency shelters in Toronto, such as this YMCA Emergency House shelter, have been operating at near capacity this summer, according to the Daily Shelter Census. (Courtesy of Vanauley YMCA )

Toronto's emergency shelters have been operating at near capacity this summer, according to the Daily Shelter Census.

The statistics are troubling, observers say, given that the summer has thus far been largely temperate.

Advocates for the homeless warn that fluctuating weather — such as the conditions Toronto saw earlier in the year — can be dangerous. The sudden jump from cool and rainy to hot and humid can have serious consequences on an already overburdened network of shelters.

A look at the city's daily shelter census shows that between mid-May and July, most shelters were at 80 to 100 per cent capacity daily, with family shelters and motels often operating over their limits.

"We're pretty much full all the time," says Louise Smith, manager of youth outreach and intervention at the YMCA House, an emergency youth shelter.

"Regardless of what the weather is like, the shelter operates the same way all year round. It doesn't close," she says.

Numbers 'not trustworthy'

The daily shelter numbers listed by the city include a mix of shelter beds and transitional beds, which are designated for people moving from shelters to permanent housing.

But advocates say the current system lacks transparency and makes it difficult to find placements.

For example, "you can't access a transitional bed if you're homeless directly from the streets," says Tanya Gulliver, research coordinator at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.

"The numbers are not trustworthy," she adds. "You can't see where the vacancies are."

Not knowing whether the vacancies are in transitional homes or emergency shelters makes it difficult for policy-makers and politicians to understand how the system is being used and where the needs are, says Gulliver.

Occupancy rate of Toronto homeless beds in summer 2015, by shelter type

On mobile? Click here for the interactive.

Melissa Goldstein, a Toronto community activist agrees, saying more data is needed.

"To improve the homeless situation in Toronto, we need to be as honest as possible about what is happening and get real data," she says.

The city is planning to provide data archives, but is limited mostly by staff resources, says Patricia Anderson, manager of partnership development and support at the City of Toronto's Shelter and Support Administration. In case of extreme temperatures, the city opens cooling centres and, in winter, warming centres, to help support the network of homeless shelters.

Although cooling and warming centres are important, Goldstein is also urging city officials to develop an alternate plan given increasing weather fluctuations during spring and summer seasons.

"We need something in the spring and the fall; we don't have anything," she says. "Until we get permanent housing, we need to create more shelter spaces that will take people off the street completely."

Map of Toronto homeless shelters

On mobile? Click here for the interactive.

A look ahead

However, Gulliver and others say that shelters are not a permanent answer, and are calling for a broader examination of the problem of homelessness.

"We've spent too much energy on what it's like to live in a shelter. We really need to start looking at why people are homeless and why they are staying homeless for years," she said.

Earlier this year, Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston announced the city was within striking distance of ending homelessness after implementing its Housing First strategy back in 2009. The plan focused on removing people who experience homelessness into independent and permanent housing as quickly as possible, before providing them with additional services and support.

Critics of the First Housing approach argued that it neglected the needs of people experiencing homelessness who are not visibly living on the streets, but who are in similarly precarious conditions.

Earlier this month, Toronto City Council approved a budget that will add $7.9 million in new funding to its homeless program to add, in particular, an additional 181 shelter beds and two 24-hour drop-in centres for women.