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Open Letter Urging Toronto City Council to Take Immediate Action to Save the Lives of People Who are Homeless by Opening Emergency Shelter Space

There is an urgent need to open additional shelter space to reduce the pressure on the system, improve its responsiveness, and ensure that no one is left out in the cold.

On February 12, Stewart Poirier’s name was added to Toronto’s Homeless Memorial as the 700th person that we know of to die in our city as a result of homelessness since the memorial was established in 1985. Thirty-four homeless people died in Toronto in 2012, marking the highest number in five years. Another eight people have died this year alone. People are crowded into Toronto’s emergency shelter system with the City’s own statistics showing 96% average occupancy, and many reports of people being unable to find a shelter bed. As well, in recent years annual shelter occupancy rates for women’s, men’s and co-ed shelters have ranged from 92-99%. This month, at the Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre on Peter Street, media photos show people sleeping in chairs. Beds are full in this facility that was never intended to be an emergency shelter.

Overcrowding in shelters presents serious health risks, including transfer of communicable diseases. It undermines safety and security, and contributes to stress and conflict. More people will inevitably opt for sleeping in parks, ravines and other hidden corners of the city rather than face the risks of overcrowded shelters.

While some Councillors have expressed great concern and a desire to respond, City Council as a whole has yet to recognize an urgency to act.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1999, facing a crisis of overcrowding in the emergency shelter system, Toronto City Council unanimously adopted the “Status Report on Capacity of the Emergency Shelter System”. Through this report, Council established an objective of a monthly shelter occupancy level of no more than 90%, as recommended by City staff. City Council recognized that shelter users would be living in stressful, overcrowded conditions at occupancy levels above 90%, and that the emergency shelter system required a degree of flexibility to respond to critical need. In response to overcrowding, Council opened a temporary shelter in Metro Hall, and then in the Fort York Armoury.

In 2001, City Council “reaffirm(ed) its commitment to maintaining a maximum 90 percent occupancy rate in the emergency shelter system as established by City Council in June 1999″. In 2002, Council reiterated its 90% occupancy goal in the Multi-Year Shelter Strategy for the City of Toronto. Over a decade ago, City Council had the wisdom to set this direction so that the shelter system could be responsive to the critical needs of people who are homeless.

It is time for City Council to return to its commitment to maintaining shelter occupancy at 90%. There is an urgent need to open additional shelter space to reduce the pressure on the system, improve its responsiveness, and ensure that no one is left out in the cold. We urge City Council to call an emergency meeting and take action to provide this basic survival support for our neighbours in need.

 Sincerely,

Tim Maguire, President, CUPE Local 79

 On behalf our members who deliver valued City services to the homeless in Toronto’s communities

 

 

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