Frigid temperatures lead to hike in shelter usage in Toronto

City to free up shelter beds by creating more housing

On the corner of Greenwood and Danforth avenues stood Wilfred Clausen Mohr, 72, with a smile on his face and an empty cup in his hand… grateful for every bit of money dropped in it. Mohr panhandles to support not only himself with basic necessities, but also the pet cat whom he loves dearly.

As a well-dressed, middle-aged woman passed by and slipped a $20 bill into his cup, Mohr’s eyes filled with tears.

“This alone is more than I see on most days,” Mohr said.

Mohr is well-known among residents of the area, where he is usually seen standing outside the local LCBO, sporting a long white beard, his worn-out green winter jacket and dark denim jeans.

Colder temperatures have arrived with a vengeance to Toronto, and the freezing weather is suspected in the deaths of four men over a two-week period earlier this month. One man, in his 50s, was found in a bus shelter located on the corner of Yonge and Dundas streets. Another, a 59-year-old man, was found in an abandoned truck located in a shipping yard.

Upward of 5,000 homeless people depend on city-funded shelters to keep warm during bone-chilling winter nights, according to the City of Toronto website. There has been a steady increase, by 1.6 per cent, in the homeless population since 2009. Emergency shelters are experiencing the highest average for nightly occupancy since 2011, accommodating more than 4,000 homeless people every night in all 57 city-operated shelters.

“Once the snow gets here, watch what happens,” Mohr warned.

Patricia Anderson manages the shelter, support and housing administration for the City of Toronto, and acknowledged that the average nightly occupancy in shelters was about three per cent higher this past fall compared to a year ago.

But now, with John Tory as the new mayor of Toronto, Anderson said in an email interview that her department plans to work with the new council to “free up beds by assisting long-term shelter users into housing, as well as the creation of additional emergency shelter beds.”

“The taxpayers are paying for all this, to help the guys like me, but the city is too busy and overwhelmed by everything else,” Mohr said.

As recently as this month, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has held protests demanding immediate attention to providing more beds in shelters for the homeless population of Toronto. OCAP is an anti-poverty organization that campaigns “against regressive government policies as they affect poor and working people,” as their website says.

A demonstration two years ago “led to the city adopting a policy of keeping shelter occupancy at no more than 90 per cent,” John Clarke, organizer for OCAP, said in an email interview. But then-mayor Rob Ford insisted that there were more than enough shelter beds to accommodate everyone who was in need, and the policy wasn’t implemented.

A total of 29 shelter clients died in 2014 in Toronto, the highest toll since 2008. That brought the total of reported deaths to 171 since 2007. Between 70 and 80 per cent of these deaths took place outside of the shelters.

“The level of overcrowding is clearly severe and life-threatening and the shelters will fail to provide any kind of safe space option unless enough additional space is opened for all shelters,” Clarke wrote.

The City of Toronto believes that the solution to homelessness is “permanent, affordable and appropriate housing, along with the necessary supports,” Anderson said.

OCAP has already taken steps to lobby the new city administration to solve the bed crisis. The city has promised OCAP a 24-hour drop-in space for women and for transgender homeless people. Both are scheduled to open in late 2015.

Mohr rotates between a local church and a shelter located in the neighbourhood during the winter.

“If 10 people show up and there are only two beds, then that leaves eight people without a bed for the night,” Mohr said.

Shelter occupancy exceeded 90 per cent every day during the month of December. As the situation steadily worsens, Clarke warns, “the immediate fight we’re taking up is just for enough shelter beds to prevent people dying on the streets.”