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Data from shelters in Toronto suggests dozens of people are turned away every night

Written by Javed Iqbal

Every night, dozens of homeless people are told there are no shelters available to them, and the situation appears to be getting worse, newly released city data shows.

That data from the city’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) was released for the first time last month.

It reveals that over the past year and a half, an average of 40 people a night have been refused shelter after calling the center to look for a bed.

But alarmingly, the trend appears to have worsened so far in 2022.

The monthly data shows that during the first six months of the year, an average of 63 people have been turned away each night amid a steady increase in the overall occupancy of the shelter system. It’s a situation that homeless advocates say is consistent with what they see on the ground.

Shelter space, they say, is becoming increasingly difficult to find, leaving many people with few options other than sleeping on the streets.

“I find more and more that you call and then you are on hold to talk to a person yourself for a long time. Then you get someone and they say, call back in an hour, there are no vacancies for men, or for women, or for a trans person, or whatever is in demand. And a number of people I work with don’t have phones themselves, they’re poor,” Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, told CP24.com. “That means when the drop-in closes at 9 p.m. or my outreach shift ends, the person doesn’t even have the option to call back, even if they think it’s worthwhile, and I’m left with ‘Okay you want have a sleeping bag?’ as the best option, which is really, really sad.”

Cook said that when beds are available, staff at the central intake are usually able to hold onto one for up to two hours, after which he can provide people seeking shelter for the night with a taxi voucher or transit token to get them to the shelter.

But he said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find available beds as the city’s homeless crisis worsens.

He said the full extent of the problem isn’t even captured by the data, since there’s no way to know how many people “don’t even bother trying anymore.”

The situation worries him about the winter, when colder night temperatures and the planned closure of several temporary hotel shelters could further exacerbate the problem.

“Especially when the weather is bad, it’s really, really hard. I’ve been on outreach shifts where we hand out Tim’s cards because at least then someone could have a few hours inside and during the pandemic, which wasn’t even an option, ” he said. “I go home at night to a warm bed knowing that people I just talked to are outside shivering. That is why we distribute sleeping bags as an organization every year. It’s because we want people to stay alive, and unfortunately many are dying.”

The city council had asked for the data to be published

The release of data on shelter referrals comes about three months after a request by the city council to make them public.

Gord Tanner, who is acting general manager of SSHA, was not made available for an interview to discuss the data.

However, a city spokesman said the numbers “reflect that the emergency shelter system continues to face significant demand.”

“During the past five years, the city has continually added and maintained new capacity in the shelter system. The shelter system is now housing nearly 2,000 more people a night than it was in April 2021, and the number of beds currently available for individuals or couples experiencing homelessness is at a five-year high. However, the homelessness sector faces significant challenges – in Toronto and in other major cities across North America,” wrote Erin Whitton. “The stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, and the critical shortage of supportive and affordable housing are all contributing to many people facing significant hardship, leaving them in need of emergency shelter and support. Likewise, the lifting of border restrictions, introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in an increase in refugee families seeking emergency shelter.”

Toronto’s shelter system typically runs at about 98 percent capacity.

But homeless advocates have long argued that these numbers falsely suggest that beds are available, when often they are not.

The data seems to support that.

For example, in June there were an average of 553 calls per night to central intake. On average, about 30 of these calls resulted in people being referred to a shelter.

But almost 100 people each night were “unmatched”, meaning staff were unable to find them a suitable bed.

In those cases, the city says caseworkers are trained to “encourage the individual to call back later” in the event a space becomes available and to share information about other services available nearby, such as drop-in programs , where they can wait for a referral to a shelter bed.

“What’s helpful about this data is that at least they can’t get away with not telling the truth. Their own data shows that when people try to find shelters, they can’t. So even though the shelter says 97 percent full, it doesn’t mean there’s a bed available,” Cook told CP24.com. “I think it’s helpful (the data), but honestly after trying to push for changes, I’m not so hopeful (that it will change anything). At least I hope they (the city) would stop like camp evictions because people don’t have a place to go. People are just out there trying to survive.”

The municipality says that the data will be updated monthly in the future.

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Javed Iqbal

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