Out of the cold

Toronto Star - - OPINION -

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

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