What it Shows and What it Misses

The Toronto Ombudsman’s report opens by acknowledging that its enquiry was prompted by a CBC interview with Cathy Crowe, ‘a well known social activist and street nurse about Toronto’s cold weather response for people who are homeless.’ The interview dealt with inadequate levels of shelter provision and looked at the need for the federal armouries to be opened in order to respond to this. Given that the media interview that prompted the enquiry raised issues around the inadequacy of the overall shelter system, it’s curious that the Ombudsman chose to limit deliberations to the back-up cold weather drop-ins. In fact, it’s actually rather worrying that this choice was made because it happens to be a rather useful one for Shelter Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) officialdom and the agenda they are pursuing.

A staff report to the June meeting of City Council’s Community Development and Recreation Committee, on ‘winter respite services,’ *(2) offers some rather similar perspectives to those informing the Ombudsman. Both take the view that there are those among the homeless who are not able or willing to access the main shelter system, who would normally sleep outside but who, in the coldest months, require low barrier facilities that are less restrictive, easier to access and take a more tolerant approach to things like behavioural issues and intoxication.

25.1 in Ombudsman’s report states that:

“There is a broad consensus that emergency shelters are unsuitable for a significant proportion of drop-in users. This is either because these people do not wish to comply with shelter rules, or because they are unable to do so for a variety of reasons, which may include past trauma, mental illness or addiction. The low-barrier drop-in model appears to accommodate a group of clients who are uncomfortable in or unable to access traditional emergency shelters.”

 Compare that to page 7 of the SSHA report, where we read:

 “Individuals who live on the street often have complex needs and typical service responses do not adequately address the supports that this population requires. Across both the Out of the Cold program and the 24 Hour Winter Respite Drop-ins, the low barrier nature of these services meets the needs of a particular population of people who are homeless, specifically the ability to come and go, no obligation to participate in programs, ability to stay with a partner or bring a pet make this a preferred service model.”

It should be understood that this back-up system of drop ins, warming centres and out of the colds run by faith institutions, is necessary only by virtue of the failings of the main shelter system and that, with the best efforts of those running it, it is unable to conform to the City’s own very modest shelter standards.  People often sleep on mats on the floor or even in chairs and have limited access to washroom and shower facilities. It is true that the overcrowded and overwhelmed shelter system fails to meet vital needs. Many find it far too rule bound and restrictive. Some are driven from it because incidents and arguments that the tense, crowded conditions engender are responded to by barring people. However, the questions that the City bureaucracy wants to avoid and the Ombudsman fails to consider are clear and obvious. Why are the shelters operating at occupancy levels that far exceed the 90% that is supposed to be a matter of long standing policy? Why aren’t there City shelters that can offer low barrier and fully accessible services? Why are shelters in the central area of the City being closed and moved out to places where support services are thin on the ground? Why are faith institutions still running a patch work of inadequate facilities decades after they were established as a stop gap measure? How can it be acceptable to place people in horribly inadequate drop in facilities that everyone knows are really substandard shelters that fail to protect their health and preserve their dignity? Why is it assumed that making sure no one has to sleep on the streets is an issue only on the coldest nights of the year?

Sadly, the failure to provide enough shelter space has forced the opening of stop gap and back up facilities. People are turning to overnight drop-ins as their only alternative to sleeping and perhaps dying on the streets. The parts of the Ombudsman’s report that takes the City to task on its failure to set realistic maximum capacity levels for its cold weather drop ins and have adequate plans for when those levels are exceeded (27-31) are entirely valid. However, we might expect a watchdog body like the Ombudsman’s office to challenge a political administration and bureaucracy that talks of housing people instead of placing them in shelters while, in reality, it institutionalizes and expands a patchwork of facilities that don’t measure up to the meagre requirements even of its own shelter system. Perhaps the next Ombudsman’s report might ask, given that we live in a city that drips with wealth but denies people housing, what are the basic standards that should be met in the shelters they are forced to turn to?

OCAP Demands: 

  1. At least 1,000 low threshold shelter beds over and above those currently approved, in order to meet the demand.
  1. Shelter spaces must be opened in the core area of the City in order to ensure they are located close to existing and available services.
  1. Federal armouries to be opened to take pressure of the system.
  1. Return of the millions of dollars siphoned away from homelessness prevention programs.
  1. Ensure that these measures are in place by winter of 2017.