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Toronto Toronto announces plans to improve shelter system this winter, including three new respite sites

The City of Toronto says it has mended the cracks in its shelter system – announcing details on Friday of a new plan for getting hundreds of homeless people out of the winter weather, including three new respite sites and extra staff.

The plan addresses space availability and the efficiency of Toronto’s operations in response to an ombudsman’s report in the spring that highlighted confusion over availability of spaces, miscommunication and unacceptable conditions through the coldest months of last winter.

The city has bought three prefabricated structures to function as 24-hour respite sites. Until they are ready, 200 temporary beds will be set up at Exhibition Place. The first of the three new structures is scheduled to open in the parking lot of Lamport Stadium on Dec. 15. The other two, at 701 Fleet St. and 351 Lakeshore Blvd. E., are to be ready by Jan. 31. Consultations have begun with communities around the sites, as local opposition is a potential hurdle, along with zoning and infrastructure concerns.

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To address issues raised in the ombudsman’s report – including information hotlines that told callers respite centres were full when they were not, and staff at one shelter having only a single cellphone, which had been stolen – the city has also overhauled some of its processes. A duty officer position will be implemented to oversee the system and work with shelter intake staff.

Extra people have been added to the central intake team, and it has updated technology in a new call centre on Church Street. “It was very clear that, through a mandate change a number of years ago … the amount of work that was coming into the [call] centre was double what was happening for the available staff,” Paul Raftis of the city’s shelter support and housing division said on Friday.

This is the fifth year in a row that the city has added spaces for the homeless, he noted. By the end of the year, the city aims to have 102 new beds in the permanent shelter system. Toronto currently has 63 shelters of all kinds, plus programs to house refugees temporarily, totalling about 7,000 beds. The three new shelters will add 145 respite beds to the city’s current capacity of 455.

Cathy Crowe, a veteran street nurse and advocate for Toronto’s homeless, called the total of 11 respite sites that will be operating this winter a positive response – but suspects they still will not be enough. Last winter was “catastrophic,” she said, chiding city council and Mayor John Tory for hesitating to open city armouries as emergency shelters.

“It was a fight to get the one armoury open [in Moss Park], and the mayor’s office in particular was in complete denial or obstructive around that whole process,” Ms. Crowe said. Mr. Tory repeatedly said last winter that the armouries were not ideal shelters. The Moss Park site did eventually open to the homeless in January.

Ms. Crowe is pleased about the prefabricated structures, which can be assembled, taken apart and moved, saying she and her colleagues called for that about 20 years ago, she said. “I’m disappointed that only one will be up in December,” she added.

City spokesperson Greg Seraganian said $3-million has been budgeted for food, security, operating costs and enhancements to staffing. On top of that, the three new respite sites will cost about $2.5-million each to buy and install.

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Mr. Raftis cautioned that demand is difficult to predict. Last winter’s peak was more than 500 users. “It is possible that we receive many more people in the city who are looking for shelter services,” he said.

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