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A homeless person lies on the sidewalk in downtown Toronto on Jan. 3, 2018.Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Toronto’s emergency “winter respite” shelter system was plagued with confusion and miscommunication and provided many homeless people with unacceptable conditions, a new report from the city’s ombudsman concludes.

The report sides with activists who complained as shelters were overwhelmed this winter when the city’s information hotlines erroneously told callers that new emergency respite centres on offer were full when in fact they had spaces.

To blame were outdated information in a database, a staffer who failed to call and check if spaces were open, and the fact that staff at the city’s Better Living Centre, opened to the homeless as the crisis mounted, were only reachable at one point via just one cell phone, which had been stolen.

The report also says the hastily opened centres themselves were in many cases overcrowded, lacked sufficient washrooms or showers, and in at least one unnamed case, far too cold: Investigators with a thermometer on one visit this winter recorded indoor temperatures as low as 11°C.

Adding to the confusion, the report says, was that the city itself uses at least 12 different terms to describe the respite centres, including “cold weather spaces,” “respite drop-ins” and “winter overnight services.” And the city’s website is also unclear about what to do if someone needs a shelter or respite site, the report says.

Cathy Crowe, a nurse and long-time advocate for the homeless who was among those sounding alarms this winter, welcomed the report, saying it echoed many of her concerns: “I think it shows that the city’s shelter system is just a big mess.”

Ombudsman Susan Opler launched her investigation of the city’s respite centres after they were inundated this winter and the city scrambled to open more of them. The crisis later forced the city to accept an offer from the federal government to open its east-end Moss Park Armoury to the homeless – just weeks after Mayor John Tory and his supporters on council had voted against the idea and city officials had insisted Moss Park was unsuitable and wasn’t needed.

However, Ms. Opler says her recommendations, some of which she delivered to city officials before the release of the report, are already being heeded. The city is drafting new standards for its eight respite centres opened over the winter. Shelter department officials have also already updated the information available to the city’s 311 call centre as well as daily public reports on how many people are using each shelter.

Ms. Opler says the city has also agreed to new measures she has recommended, including clarifying the roles of 311, the city’s “central intake” shelter office and its Streets to Homes referral centre on Peter Street, all of which take calls from people or frontline workers seeking shelter, and setting up a new system to share information about occupancy at its respite sites.

Mr. Tory, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, said he and city officials support all of the ombudsman’s recommendations and were already acting on them. He also noted that the ombudsman mentions that city council, for the first time since 2009, has just agreed to boost the shelter system’s budget as officials seek to add more beds before next winter.

“I think people should have reason to believe that things are going to be better.”

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