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In June, city data reveals a record-breaking 273 individuals were denied shelter per night in Toronto


An average of 273 people a night were told there were no beds available for them in Toronto’s homeless shelters in June, a new record for the city, recently released data shows.

Homeless advocates tell CBC Toronto they believe the number is very concerning and believe the number may be an undercount. Many are calling for more shelter beds, permanent affordable housing, an increase in Ontario Works rates, and rent control for all new tenants.

The data comes from the city’s central gateway, a telephone service that offers referrals to emergency shelters, other overnight accommodations and information on homeless services. It can be found on the city’s Shelter System Referral Requests page, which lists the city’s monthly average data from June 2021 on the number of callers who are “shelter mismatched” at the end of the day.

Last June, the “average daily number of unmatched individual calls” was 273.5, a new high from 219.9 in May, when the average first topped 200. The spike in numbers followed the city’s May 31 announcement that it would refer asylum seekers to federal programs and services, saying its shelter system was full and asking for more funding from Ottawa.

“Nearly 300 callers looking for a bed run out of space to shelter each night, 45 percent of whom are refugees,” the city said in an email on Sunday.

‘It’s shameful,’ says activist

AJ Withers, an activist who has studied Toronto’s shelter system extensively, said the number is likely higher than reported because the city does not include families in its count of “unmatched individual calls.”

“This crisis in the shelter system is getting worse, which is deeply concerning,” they said.

AJ Withers, the Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, says: “We’ve been saying for a long time that there is a crisis in the shelter system and this means that this crisis in the shelter system is getting worse, which is very concerning.” (Submitted by AJ Withers)

“Every night there are hundreds of people who cannot get into the shelter system, and we know that many people give up. That number also represents many more people who stopped calling. It means that many people are sleeping outside.

“The city has basically abandoned its most vulnerable people. And it’s shameful.”

Earlier this month, the city said in an email that it has “more shelter beds per capita than any other major Canadian city.” But despite adding more than 1,000 new shelter spaces in the past year, the system remains “at capacity most nights.”

Withers said the city needs to open about 2,000 shelter beds right away to try to meet the need.

A combination of rising rents, a lack of rent control for new tenants, rising food prices and inflation are making city life unaffordable, Withers said. The three levels of government are to blame and could make different decisions to improve the situation of the homeless, they added.

City may need to expand family shelter system: Tanner

June’s record number comes as the city is working to find housing for ayslum applicants. Last week, black-led organizations stepped in and found shelter for asylum seekers primarily at two churches in North York. Asylum seekers slept on downtown sidewalks outside a homeless support center as different levels of government battled over funding for shelters.

In a statement on Friday, the city said it has taken “swift action” to secure emergency housing for asylum seekers. The city said it has secured hotel rooms and is moving asylum seekers, with the goal of increasing housing capacity to a total of 250 people, as directed by the city council.

The city’s central intake has a separate process for homeless families with children, called the family placement process. Through this process, families can access additional resources through Ontario Works and Toronto Employment and Social Services to access hotel space until shelter space is available. The city said it operates 14 family shelter programs and provides shelter and support to more than 2,450 people.

But it may need to expand the family shelter system, said Gord Tanner, general manager of the city’s Housing and Shelter Support Administration.

10,418 ‘actively homeless’ in Toronto in the last 3 months

In a July 5 interview with CBC Toronto, Tanner said the city’s shelter system is under unprecedented pressure. He said the city has about 9,000 shelter beds and is supporting about 170 families outside of the hotel shelter system as they wait to enter the system.

Tanner said the city has long used hotels to support families, whether they are seeking asylum or not, but may need to invest more in family shelters to keep up with demand.

“It’s something we’re looking at closely… The children [are] involved in many of these situations and we need to take extra care and make sure we’re doing everything we can to support families in the best way possible.”

Weston King Neighborhood Center
A view of a room in the Weston King Neighborhood Center, a non-profit community center serving the Weston and Mount Dennis neighborhoods. His defense workers call the city for shelter beds for clients. (Submitted by Mei Wang)

According to the city’s shelter system flow data page, there are 10,418 people considered “actively homeless” in the past three months in Toronto.

Last week, the federal government announced that it would provide $212 million for the Temporary Housing Assistance Program, which provides funds on a cost-share basis to provinces and municipalities to cover the costs of temporary housing for asylum seekers. Of that amount, $97 million would go to Toronto.

Could mean ‘life or death’: lawyer

Mei Wang, an advocacy worker at the Weston King Neighborhood Center, a nonprofit community center that serves the Weston and Mount Dennis neighborhoods, said Monday that the number is not surprising.

“It’s been hard to call central intake for people,” he said. “Since September…it hasn’t been an ideal situation. Sometimes you have to call all day, like three, four, five phone calls and then maybe you can find a bed for someone.”

In some cases, workers calling three times a day per person for a week still couldn’t secure a bed, he said. At that point, they are given a sleeping bag and go to a camp, she said.

“The social safety net is not working. Something is wrong here and I think it is the responsibility of the city and the federal government to do something about it,” he said.

Wang said it’s important to note that homeless people seeking shelter may be fleeing abusive situations, and when shelter space isn’t immediately available, they may have to return to their abusers.

In remarks at a council meeting on Thursday, Mayor Olivia Chow spoke about her mother’s experience fleeing abuse, saying: “We need to give hope to women and children who are experiencing violence now, and one way to give hope is to say you can recover.”

Wang added: “They may feel like it’s so hard to get help from anywhere else, they may feel isolated, they may feel powerless.

“It could mean life or death for some people.”

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