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Alison Gibbins, see here with four-week Galen on May 11, 2012, is one of many Toronto parents struggling to find a daycare solution.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Most came with sleeping bags and lawn chairs, a few comforts to make the sidewalk a more hospitable place while waiting in line overnight. But these weren't teens camping out for concert tickets – they were parents, doing what parents in Toronto do to get their kids into the right daycare.

Word had gotten out that Howard Park Children's Centre, near High Park, would be accepting new daycare applications starting at 7:30 this past Monday morning. The first to line up came at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, angling for one of only six coveted spots. Howard Park board member Ula Ubani wasn't too surprised. Three years ago when she was a parent signing up her child, she arrived at 3:30 in the morning, and that was in January.

"The lineups keep starting earlier," says Ms. Ubani. "We knew we had to move [applications]to May, for safety reasons."

Though sidewalk vigils aren't the norm, parents vying for daycare admissions is a drama that plays out across the city.

In parts of Toronto, the demand for daycare spots far outstrips the supply, leaving parents of young children facing a thicket of long wait lists. Frustration gives way to desperation. With three levels of government currently prescribing cutbacks and the heavily regulated industry not tempting to private enterprise, no one involved expects the situation to improve soon. The least the city could do, say stressed-out parents, is to help make some sense of overlapping and impenetrable wait lists.

Ms. Ubani says she has had to fend off hopeful parents at cocktail parties after being outed as someone on the inside at the well-regarded Howard Park centre.

"Parents are stressed out. They can be aggressive, verbally abusive," says Ms. Ubani.

But at least Howard Park publicizes when they will be accepting applications. The YMCA runs more than 200 daycares across Toronto. Some of those centres have wait lists that are closed, and parents have no way of finding out when they will open, besides making routine phone calls.

"We don't publicize [when the wait list opens]" says Kerri Lewis, the YMCA's general manager of child and family development, explaining that doing so would generate too much interest. "It doesn't make sense to give people hope when there are already 30 people for 10 spots."

Erika Barrientos knows what it's like to be without hope. The 40-year-old mother of two put her name on wait lists at six High Park daycares when she learned she was pregnant with her first child. She called them all back when he was born, and then again when he was a year old. She never heard back from any of them.

"I was sobbing," she says. Because she was self-employed, she had not received maternity leave and says she was anxious to get back to work as a real-estate agent. She went online to research unregistered homecare, provided in private homes.

"Shopping for homecare online is scary for a parent," she says.

An ad on Kijiji finally led Ms. Barrientos to a caregiver she was comfortable with, but that didn't stop her from crying for an hour after first dropping her child off. "We want the best for our children, but we can't choose the place. They choose you."

They choose you if you are lucky, that is. Alison Gibbins says she was fortunate to find a spot for her first child when he was 10 months old. A city labour disruption had stopped subsidies temporarily, which opened up a spot for her at Ferncliff Daycare near Roncesvalles Avenue. Now searching for a spot for her one-month-old child, she's been told the wait will be two years (and she's on the board of the non-profit co-operative daycare, a point cocktail-party predators of Ms. Ubani might take into account).

The 35-year-old marketing entrepreneur has become somewhat of an expert in the area of daycare options and now runs workshops for 20 or 30 people at a time instructing parents on their daycare options. She says she encourages expectant parents to join. "They're the ones who have a chance of getting in before the child is too old," she says.

Ms. Gibbins says that parents aren't the only ones who feel frustrated by the complex wait lists. She says administrators grapple with different ways of managing their lists because there is no easy way to keep an efficient list with so many moving parts. Lists have to take into account sibling preferences, age-group distinctions and the fact that pretty much everyone on the list is on similar lists in five other places, and may have already found arrangements.

Ms. Gibbins has taken initial steps to set up a voluntary city-wide registry to bring some cohesiveness to the overlapping wait lists. Her Daycare Simplify initiative would create an online wait-list registry for all willing centres and make it easier for administrators and parents to get a transparent view of where children are on different lists and what centres have space available.

"It's basic computer programming," says Ms. Gibbins. She is waiting to be convinced it would be viable, but admits that, for the sake of parents and providers, it might be something best done at a higher level. "The city really should be doing it," says Ms. Gibbins.

Jane Mercer couldn't agree more. She's the executive co-ordinator of the Toronto Coalition for Better Childcare and says the city has a sound strategy for distributing its provincially funded subsidies to parents in need, but does little to co-ordinate daycare centres across the city.

"There are more than 900 centres across the city, and no way to help you find where space is," says Ms. Mercer.

Of those 921 centres, 52 are run by the city, 238 are for-profit ventures and 631 are private non-profit co-ops.

The private non-profits have grown up one-by-one and incorporated to try to meet needs of their communities, but operate as independent pods. "That's why the wait lists are such a nightmare, " she explains.

Elaine Baxter-Trahair, general manager of Toronto's childcare services, says the city's website lists all registered daycare centres in the city. They used to try to track the number of vacancies at different centres, but accuracy proved impossible. "We can't update 900 pages a day," she explains.

Ms. Baxter-Trahair says she hopes in the next two years the department will have in place a system that will allow daycare operators to go onto the city website and update their own listings so anyone can see at a glance how long the wait lists are. It's too early to tell how detailed the information could be.

Of course, there's a more fundamental reason the wait lists are lengthy, what Ms. Mercer calls a "systemic crisis" that's "failing to provide adequate funding for daycare."

"We have no federal or provincial strategy to ensure adequate access to daycare, like we do for health care and education," she says, noting how close the country came to having a national strategy in 2006 before the minority Liberal government fell to the Conservatives.

Combine what Ms. Mercer considers to be insufficient funding with high real-estate prices and the highly regulated and labour-intensive nature of the industry (which discourages private providers from entering the field), and that means there are fewer than 57,000 registered daycare spots in Toronto. Ms. Mercer says that covers only 20 per cent of children in the daycare-age bracket. She notes that 70 per cent of mothers of young children are in the work force nationwide.

"It leaves parents floundering," says Ms. Mercer. "There are probably 40,000 children on wait lists in Toronto, spread across every middle-income neighbourhood."

"Of course, we have no way of knowing."

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