John Clarke, leader of Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, speaks to a council committee at a meeting on the shelter system on March 18, 2013.

Council committee hears stories of homelessness during shelter meeting

Emily Wright, 28, was homeless at 19. She came from a loving family but struggled with drug use after being bullied growing up. After many drug relapses, Wright’s family home was no longer open to her.

“I practiced survival on the streets living hour by hour, trying to stay alive,” Wright told a city of Toronto committee meeting March 18.  “I was underfed, unable to maintain my personal hygiene, sleep deprived and no longer receiving any support from my friends or family.”

Wright was one of more than 20 deputations heard Monday by the city’s Community Development and Recreation Committee at Toronto City Hall . The committee was gathering for an  update on emergency shelter services. Community health workers, members of advocacy groups and people who have been in Toronto’s shelter system addressed the committee.

Wright is now in her last year at Ryerson University. She is now off the streets and lives in an apartment downtown. She says that Toronto’s shelter system is severely underfunded, and has a service model of short, temporary stays.

“If I had not been provided a bed and shelter, a bed that I was allowed to occupy for more than one night at a time, I would have likely passed away on the streets of the city, my name added to the list of what is now 700 people who have lost their lives as a result of homelessness,” Wright said.

Sarah Blackstock, the YWCA’s Director of Advocacy and Communications, called for urgent action on affordable housing. Blackstock said that YWCA’s shelter in downtown Toronto is being used as transitional housing. Their Women’s Shelter has a 33-bed capacity.

Blackstock reported that in 2012, more than 23 per cent of YWCA shelter’s occupants were staying six months or more.

“The shelter system is an essential service, but is not a solution to homelessness,” Blackstock said. “In our view, it is a response to other failed systems.”

The meeting comes after a whirlwind of media coverage involving the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). The advocacy group has been protesting against what they say is a great shortage of shelter beds available in the city.

The council committee was called to review a city report released March 4, 2013. That report states that there are shelter beds available every night.

There are 57 shelters in Toronto and about 3,800 beds. Nine of the shelters are City operated. The city also funds 172 beds that are kept for emergencies.

The report says that all shelters, including youth, women and family shelters, are running at a 96 per cent occupancy.

John Clarke, the leader of OCAP, explains why he thinks more shelter beds are needed.

“Of course there is always going to be some beds opening up in a system,” Clarke said. “But they do their assessment at four o’clock in the morning. At eight and ten o’clock people are being told there’s nothing, and then in course of the night you’re going to get some people who leave or some people who don’t show up. But at the key times when people are seeking them, again and again the shelters are full.”

The report by the Community Development and Recreation Committee also says that there is room for service efficiency improvement. It suggests randomly checking the practices of bed access.

The committee announced during the meeting that 2013 is a transition year for the current shelter system as it is develops into a housing stabilization service plan.

Clarke believes immediate action needs to be taken.

“What has to happen right now is that beds have to be opened up in addition to the existing system,” Clarke said. “To simply crowd more people into the existing shelters is not the solution. A facility has to be opened up.”

The committee recommended making regular use of the 172 emergency beds to diminish overcrowding. The beds are usually used only for cold weather alerts.

City council will make the final decision at the next city council meeting on April 3, 2013.