An in-depth look at how the city’s most vul­ner­a­ble live amongst its most af­flu­ent

Mid­town shel­ters are at ca­pac­ity and Out of the Cold pro­grams are over­flow­ing in North Toronto and For­est Hill, as ad­vo­cates push for more emer­gency shel­ters

Midtown Post - - News - — Sa­man­tha Peksa

In­di­vid­u­als on the front line of Toronto’s fight against home­less­ness are ask­ing the city to call it what it is: a cri­sis. Last month, the com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment and recre­ation com­mit­tee voted to de­clare a state of emer­gency and ap­prove more beds for vul­ner­a­ble men and women by the end of 2017. It will head to Toronto City Coun­cil Dec. 5.

The move came days be­fore Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced a $40 bil­lion na­tional hous­ing strat­egy to build 100,000 social hous­ing units and fund much-needed re­pairs to an­other 300,000 across Canada over the next decade. Most of the plan won’t come into ef­fect un­til 2019. In the mean­time, in­di­vid­u­als liv­ing on the streets of Toronto re­main at risk.

The City of Toronto’s shel­ter sys­tem is at 96 per cent ca­pac­ity, with 5,386 oc­cu­pants and 5,585 shel­ters beds. Some of those shel­ter beds are lo­cated in Mid­town at the Toronto Com­mu­nity Hos­tel near Dupont Street and Spad­ina Road, at Na-Me-Res men’s shel­ter near Bathurst Street and St. Clair Av­enue West and at Eva’s Place near Les­lie Street and York Mills Road.

Coun­cil­lor Kristyn Wong-Tam of Ward 27, Toronto Cen­treRosedale, said home­less­ness is no longer a prob­lem con­fined to the back al­leys of down­town Toronto.

“It is not as vis­i­ble in Mid­town but it ex­ists every­where. We have en­camp­ments in the ravines, un­der the bridges and in Rosedale Val­ley,” said Wong-Tam. “If peo­ple are not look­ing down at their phones or speed­ing by in a car, they will see peo­ple there.”

Eli­sheva Pas­sarello spent her first night on the street in Oc­to­ber 2012. Trav­el­ling on a bus late a night with nowhere to go and very lit­tle money, she even­tu­ally made her way to North York Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal to wait out what she said felt like the long­est night of her life.

The path to home­less­ness for Pas­sarello was paved with pit­falls not un­com­mon to many oth­ers liv­ing on the streets of Toronto: she had suf­fered a his­tory of abuse, was laid off from her job and later evicted, had health is­sues and no sup­port sys­tem to lean on. As a re­sult, her men­tal health was de­clin­ing rapidly.

“I had so many things hap­pen all at once: loss of a re­la­tion­ship, loss of a house, loss of a job. And I felt like I was go­ing to lose my mind,” she said. “Ev­ery­thing hap­pened re­ally, re­ally quickly.”

Be­fore she knew it, she had gone from a four-bed­room home out­side of the GTA to a home­less women’s shel­ter in Mid­town. She has been liv­ing there since 2013.

Af­ter mov­ing through the tran­si­tional stages at the shel­ter, Pas­sarello now pays rent there and has be­gun to find her way out of the trenches. These days she speaks as an ad­vo­cate for oth­ers and said she knows first-hand the toll the winter months can take on those liv­ing on the streets and in shel­ters.

“Our hu­man bod­ies need to feel safe, warm, and we need to have heathy food … [oth­er­wise] you can’t func­tion. I know what that feels like, to just feel like a zom­bie. You get de­pressed be­cause you want to do more. You want to be more and you can’t,” said Pas­sarello.

Many home­less peo­ple lack proper winter cloth­ing, and Pas­sarello said they of­ten take shel­ter in lo­cal li­braries or on public tran­sit to es­cape the cold.

At Toronto’s Board of Health on Oct. 30, med­i­cal of­fi­cer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa said the city has wit­nessed 70 deaths of home­less peo­ple in 2017 as of Sept. 30.

Wong-Tam said that num­ber is just the tip of the ice­berg.

“We are go­ing to see more deaths this winter if we don’t do some­thing dra­matic now ... We need [the city] to de­clare a state of emer­gency.”

To com­bat the cold weather, the city opened five 24-hour drop-in warm­ing cen­tres across the city on Nov. 15, in­clud­ing one at 21 Park Rd. in Yorkville. The cen­tres, also known as respite sites, will be funded by the city and run by not­for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions un­til April 2018.

Coun­cil­lor Wong-Tam noted the cen­tres are a band-aid so­lu­tion.

“Our shel­ters are over­flow­ing. We have drop-in fa­cil­i­ties across the city that are not shel­ters, but they’re be­hav­ing like shel­ters be­cause their clients have no place to go,” she said.

Out of the Cold fa­cil­i­ties across Mid­town are also heav­ily fre­quented by those in need.

Joyce Rankin is the vol­un­teer di­rec­tor of the Out of the Cold pro­gram at York­min­ster Park Bap­tist Church near Yonge and St. Clair. The pro­gram opened on Nov. 1 and runs un­til April 4, 2018, ev­ery Wed­nes­day night from 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. Rankin and 150 other vol­un­teers pro­vide sup­per and break­fast to overnight guests. The pro­gram ac­com­mo­dates 60 peo­ple per night, and Rankin said they are al­ways at ca­pac­ity.

Rankin called Trudeau’s na­tional hous­ing strat­egy “too lit­tle, too late” and ar­gued it won’t do any­thing to help those who are cur­rently suf­fer­ing.

“The city and, quite frankly, all three lev­els of gov­ern­ment are re­ly­ing on the vol­un­teer sec­tor to do their work, ” said Rankin. “The Out of the Cold was meant to be a twoyear strat­egy, and that was over 30 years ago.”

Pas­sarello has also vol­un­teered at Holy Blos­som Tem­ple’s Out of the Cold pro­gram in For­est Hill for the past three years, where more than a hun­dred home­less peo­ple of­ten come for food and warmth. Yet only 45 can spend the night.

The num­ber of overnight stays at Out of the Cold across the city saw a nine per cent in­crease in de­mand over two years, from 12,125 recorded dur­ing the 2015/2016 sea­son to 13,199 dur­ing 2016/2017.

“It’s a sign that there are all these ex­tra peo­ple,” said Pas­sarello. “And when the Out of the Cold ends, they don’t dis­ap­pear. They’re just liv­ing on the street.”

Wong-Tam noted the is­sue is not Toronto-spe­cific as many home­less peo­ple come from out­side the city.

“I’m hear­ing sto­ries about shel­ters and drop-in fa­cil­i­ties re­ceiv­ing clients from London, Hamilton, from Peel and York Re­gion be­cause they’re all told to come to Toronto be­cause we have ser­vices,” she said.

The city has also in­tro­duced an on­line por­tal, Home­less Help, which maps out emer­gency ser­vices for home­less peo­ple across Toronto.

Clock­wise from left: the Out of the Cold pro­gram at Yonge and St. Clair, Yorkville’s new respite cen­tre at 21 Park Rd., home­less­ness ad­vo­cate Eli­sheva Pas­sarello

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