Ombudsman to probe city 'miscommunication' after dozens turned away from shelters in extreme cold

Toronto's ombudsman has launched an investigation into what the city is calling a "miscommunication" about whether homeless shelters were over-capacity this weekend when dozens of the city's most vulnerable say they were turned away in extreme cold by the call centre due to a lack of space.

Investigation will determine if city providing shelter services properly, Susan Opler says

Toronto's ombudsman has launched an investigation into what the city is calling 'miscommunication' between homeless shelters and the city's central intake that left dozens on the street last weekend. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Toronto's ombudsman has launched an investigation into what the city is calling a "miscommunication" about whether homeless shelters were over-capacity this weekend.

Ombudsman Susan Opler released a statement on Tuesday after her office was contacted by homeless advocates about dozens of people being turned away by the city's call centre in extreme cold. 

"We are concerned about reports that some people were mistakenly told there wasn't any space for them on December 30th," Opler said in a statement. 

Paul Raftis, the general manager of the city's Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA), told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that he's "very concerned" with the communications mistake that appears to have taken place at the organization's central intake facility.

He blames a "very dynamic" system where 62 different shelter sites, including those run by the city and outside groups, are trying to relay information about how much space they can offer at the same time.

Raftis says the SSHA will also be probing what went wrong, but stressed to reporters that anyone who needs a shelter bed in Toronto should be able to find something.

Opler says she's been monitoring nightly shelter use and has been speaking with both staff, advocates and front-line workers.

Opler adds that she's focusing on whether or not the city is "providing services in a way that ensures people's dignity, safety and comfort."

City deliberately not using all shelter beds, advocate charges

The move comes after homeless advocates demanded answers from the city after some of Toronto's most vulnerable people sought warmth by crowding into the heated trailer at Moss Park's overdose prevention site, and two people paid for nearly two dozen hotel rooms during the record-breaking cold.   

Doug Johnson Hatlem, a former Toronto street pastor who spent seven years advocating for the city's homeless community, says city staff intentionally "fudged" data that left its central intake turning people away since Friday because it reported Toronto's shelters were at 95 per cent capacity.

"They have beds but they're not releasing them," said Hatlem, contending it's not a miscommunication between Toronto's shelters and the downtown call centre that's exposing the city's homeless to bone-chilling temperatures.

"This is a strategy the city has had for years. Once they get over about 90 to 95 per cent capacity, then they start telling people the beds are full."

'No intentional gaming' of shelter system: city

Raftis denied this claim, contending "there's no intentional gaming of the system."

He says instead, the city's central intake facility — the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre, located at 129 Peter St. that refers Toronto's homeless and outreach workers to the proper shelter or winter respite centre, depending on an individual's needs — is receiving reports of bed vacancies from shelters in real time. 

"It's very dynamic, so those beds fill and become empty regularly throughout the 24-hour period," he told reporters Tuesday.

Homeless advocates are demanding answers from the city after a miscommunication between Toronto shelters and the city's central intake last weekend left dozens on the street amid the extreme cold warning. (John Clark/Twitter)

Toronto's shelters can house 5,783 people to date.

On Saturday night, overdose prevention workers at Moss Park's temporary supervised injection site raised alarms about the city's homeless shelter crisis when volunteer Gillian Kolla tweeted she was unable to find a shelter to send people who were cramming into their trailer just for a few minutes out of the cold. 

The next day, volunteer Jennifer Evans and local businessman Mohamad Fakih teamed up to get 18 homeless people out of the bitter cold and into the warmth of hotel rooms around the city. The two strangers offered to cover the cost of a hotel room for anyone who needed it. 

Fakih, who owns Paramount Fine Foods, a Middle Eastern food chain, also agreed to continue paying for additional nights, despite the city's claim that there is space available at some of the city's 62 shelters and six winter respite centres.

There are now six 24/7 winter respite sites in downtown Toronto, but like larger shelters, many are already nearing or at capacity. (John Rieti/CBC)

Hatlem claims the city continued to deny that there is shelter space over the weekend, despite a five per cent vacancy rate, to cut costs. 

"If they don't release a bed, they don't have to pay for it," he said. 

Hatlem says he called the city's central intake at 11 p.m. Monday asking for a bed at Harbourfront's Better Living Centre. He explains a worker told him, "It was all filled up."

That's when he visited the recently-opened winter respite shelter in Exhibition Place to see if there was space.  

"The Better Living Centre said they could take people, but central intake, which is what everyone on the frontline, everyone out on the street is told to call for beds, clearly stated the Better Living Centre was filled up," he told CBC Toronto on Tuesday. 

'Not turning anyone away'

Mark Aston, executive director of Fred Victor, the charitable organization that runs the Better Living Centre, confirmed Tuesday they had "excess capacity" throughout the weekend despite central intake's confusion about shelter space. 

"We're not turning anyone away," he said.

On Monday night the new respite centre was 75 per cent full, with 83 people using their beds. 

Since the Better Living Centre opened on Dec. 21, Aston says demand "has got busier" amid temperatures in Toronto that plummeted below -20 with the wind chill factor on Christmas Day. 

Aston called this weekend's miscommunication "unfortunate" and said Toronto shelters "don't want to be in a position" where volunteers need to pay for hotel rooms to house the homeless because there's no space at their facilities. 

As a result, Better Living Centre's capacity was increased Tuesday due to a delivery of additional beds. It can now accommodate 140 people. 

City explores technology to improve communication

Coun. Joe Mihevc, the city's poverty reduction advocate, says homeless advocates "have a good point" about the need to improve communication between shelter staff and the city's central intake facility so "everyone is accommodated."

"We need to find ways to bridge and talk to one another again to make sure the right information is coming, that we're all working towards the same goal, which is to bring people out of the cold and into warmth," he said in an interview with CBC Toronto on Tuesday.  

And Raftis says he agrees, explaining "there's no question" that the SSHA has to review how the central intake facility operates. 

"We need to look at technology to help us with that real-time communication, and we need to investigate and look into the processes and protocols that we have in place to do that," he said. 

In the meantime, he noted that outreach workers will continue combing the streets to ensure Toronto's homeless aren't braving the frigid temperatures alone. 

"We are having our street outreach teams go out to try and find and talk to any individual who is on the street, including the Moss Park safe injection site, and offer them services to come in and actually take them directly to service," he said. 

With files from CBC's John Rieti and Ali Chiasson