Out of the cold
The streets of Toronto are no place for anyone to spend the night in the middle of winter. So it’s welcome news that the city is opening five round-the-clock “respite centres” for the cold season starting on Nov. 15.
The centres, which will be able to hold a total of 250 people, won’t have cots. But they will have mats and serve up meals, snacks and hot drinks to those in need. Most importantly, staff will be on hand to help homeless people find permanent housing.
This is a much better situation than last winter when all too often shelters were filled and people were sitting on chairs all night in referral centres or, worse, sleeping in the streets.
Still, this should only be seen as a stopgap measure for the winter months.
Critics who work with the homeless say the conditions at respite centres are detrimental to people’s health. Nurse practitioner Jessica Hales says many experience “deep stress, sleep deprivation, trauma and the erosion of physical and mental health.”
The city must focus more resources on providing proper shelter beds and, most importantly, permanent housing.
Sadly, both are a long way off. For example, last year there were only 4,300 shelter beds for an estimated homeless population of 5,000. This year the city has added more beds. It now has 5,448 and expects to operate 5,651 by the end of the year.
But that’s still not enough in a city where the homeless population is growing. Indeed, a city committee just voted to add $20 million to the shelter budget for hotel and motel rooms for the homeless because of a shortage of beds.
Nor is there much hope of finding permanent low-cost housing. In fact, there are 181,000 people on the wait list for subsidized housing in Toronto, many of whom are forced into shelters.
The bottom line is that the federal and provincial governments should be helping the city deal with the growth in homelessness and the influx of refugees by providing more money for emergency shelters and subsidized housing.
At the moment, Ottawa provides no funding for the city’s emergency shelter system, and the province’s contribution is fixed, no matter the increase in those in need of a bed. And neither senior government is kicking in enough money to repair the subsidized housing that currently exists, never mind building more.
That failure comes with a steep human cost, as well as a financial one. Last spring, the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area estimated that the cost of having 5,253 people on Toronto streets added up to $420,000 a night, including the cost of shelter funding, police interactions, hospital stays and nights in jail. By contrast, it estimated the cost of putting the homeless into social housing would be just $34,000 a night.
In the short term, the respite centres will provide warmth and sustenance on a cold winter’s night. But all levels of government must invest in permanent housing as quickly as possible.
The new respite centres should only be seen as a stopgap measure for the winter months