New warming centres opened Thursday night as extreme cold set in

Mayor John Tory says talks to open Moss Park armoury shelter 'constructive,' but ongoing, amid prolonged cold snap. Two new warming centres opened Thursday evening to offset the strain on the city's shelter system in the meantime.

As shelters hit 95% capacity amid extreme cold, talks to open Moss Park armoury still ongoing, Tory said

The city will announce when the armoury is open and how many beds will be available. (Muriel Draaisma/CBC)

With more extreme cold in the forecast, Mayor John Tory announced in a Thursday afternoon news conference that two new 24-hour warming centres will open in an effort to address dangerously low temperatures. 

The centres will be housed at Metro Hall and the Regent Park Community Centre and were to open Thursday at 7 p.m.

Tory also said that talks with three levels of government to open a winter respite shelter at the Moss Park armoury are ongoing but "constructive."

On Wednesday, Tory asked the provincial government to convert the Moss Park armoury into a 24/7 winter respite centre until mid-April, while also announcing the city is adding more cots at the Better Living Centre and other facilities.  

The province submitted a request to the federal Minister of Public Safety on Thursday, provincial spokesperson Brent Ross told CBC Toronto.

The provincial minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services "has been assured that her request is being treated as a priority by the federal government," Ross said.

To become a shelter, the Moss Park armoury would need to meet a number of criteria, including security, availability of emergency social services, provision of meals, health and safety standards, access to bathrooms and showers and enough space for beds, Public Safety Canada told CBC Toronto.

Mayor John Tory told reporters Thursday afternoon the city will open two new warming centres as more extreme cold descends on Toronto. (John Rieti/CBC)

On Wednesday, 95 per cent of the city's shelter spaces were in use, according to new statistics.

Meanwhile, 381 people sought warmth at winter respite stations and 112 women relied on drop-in centres. Family shelters were completely full, while youth shelters are 98 per cent full.

Both Tory and city shelter staff have repeatedly told anyone in need of shelter that there will be an indoor space available to them.

Outreach teams have been trying to get homeless people indoors, but Paul Raftis, the general manager of the city's Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, noted that some turn down offers of assistance. "They cannot be forced to come in off the street, so we continue to check on them regularly," Raftis said.

Tory appealed to the public to call the city if they witness anyone with signs of frostbite. Those concerned about someone they've seen outside is being urged to call either 311 or 911 if it's an emergency.

Communication system ripe for review, shelter head says

Tory also told reporters Thursday that extra staff would be sent to handle the complex logistics at the winter respite shelters.

Earlier this week, the city admitted a "miscommunication" issue was responsible for turning dozens of people away from shelters when they called in to check for available beds. The city's ombudsman launched an investigation Tuesday.

Raftis blamed a "very dynamic" system in which 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.

"We have 6,000 beds open every night. It's a challenging environment to work in," added Raftis on Thursday.

Despite the difficulties, he called the city's communication issues "inexcusable," and revealed that the city will bring in an adviser to do a "full review" of how shelters, warming centres and intake facilities share information in the wake of the ombudsman's investigation.

Tory calls for supportive housing as solution 

Acknowledging the city's homeless often struggle with mental illness, Tory called for more attention to supportive housing, which he says would offer mentally ill clients a long-term place to live.

"What is needed is not just permanent shelter beds, but supportive housing," Tory said, calling the current landscape a "crisis."

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

Tory said the lack of viable housing for those needing mental health support is causing "hundreds and hundreds of people" to use shelters instead, adding that public health systems should instead bear responsibility for those with mental illness. 

"We had some first effort, not insignificant, from the provincial government to move toward this objective, but I am going to continue beating this drum."