As much of Ontario faces extreme cold weather, concern is mounting for the well-being of Toronto's homeless population, which numbers in the thousands.
The city has set a target rate of 90 per cent occupancy for homeless shelters. But Saturday night, when the temperature with the wind chill was down to –29 C, occupancy was at an average rate of 95 per cent. Some services, including family shelters, were full.
Many temporary facilities have been set up to provide relief during the winter months, when shelter occupancy tends to spike. But temporary shelters are not required to meet the same service standards as permanent facilities. Not all of the sites have showers, and most don't offer support services like counselling or case management.
"It's a catastrophe," said Cathy Crowe, a street nurse who works to provide services for homeless people. In a phone interview from a temporary shelter in the city's east end – she didn't want to identify it, for fear that describing its conditions might cause the city to shut it down – Crowe described a scene of chaos and neglect.
"It's pretty desperate," she said. "Very crowded. People are in rough shape. Mostly people are sleeping on the floor... I'm actually sitting inside and I'm shaking with cold."
On the phone from another temporary shelter at the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place, city Coun. Joe Mihevc described a very different scene.
"The service is very good. The food is good," said Mihevc. "I just talked to some of the clients here, and they are quite content here."
The shelter at the Better Living Centre is one of few in the city where places are still available. But Crowe says its location near the south end of the city, by Lake Ontario, makes it inaccessible for much of the downtown population. There used to be street outreach vans to transport homeless people to shelters, but those systems were dismantled, she said. Instead, the TTC has said it is redirecting buses to stop outside the shelter.
Its relative isolation was compounded Saturday night, when due to what the city has characterized a "miscommunication," prospective clients were turned away. People were told the shelter was full, when in fact only 71 of its 110 cots were in use.
Crowe is asking the city to open its two armouries to provide additional relief in the cold weather. An online petition had gathered over 32,000 signatures by Sunday evening as wind chill values below –30 C were forecast and had prompted the city to cancel much of its planned New Year's Eve celebrations.
"You'd have a large, spacious (building) that people trust, because it's worked in the past," she says. "It would be immediate relief so that people who are in overflow places such as the one I was just in could go in and there could be cots, hot food, blankets. It could be really operationalized as a good centre."
On Dec. 6, Toronto's city council had voted down Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam's motion to open the armouries to the homeless. Wong-Tam had received an offer of assistance from the federal defence minister.
The vote was a bitter disappointment, Crowe says. "It's not every day that the federal government offers you something.
"They have a million reasons (for the No vote), but none of them are humane."
In a statement issued Sunday evening, Mayor John Tory said the city's "expert staff continue to believe the Better Living Centre is a better option for a winter respite than the armouries."
Mihevc, who serves as Tory's poverty reduction advocate, said he agrees that the armouries would not provide better care than what's currently available. The Better Living Centre is "a city facility and it's available 24/7," Mihevc says. "Moss Park Armoury would be open only 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., so people would have to be kicked out during the day.
"I hope people will see that this is, frankly, a better choice... No one wants anyone to be pushed out into the cold."
Mihevc and Crowe agree on the fact that more long-term solutions are needed to fight homelessness. More than 5,200 people were homeless in Toronto in 2013, the last year for which the city has released data.
"Shelters are a bandage," Mihevc said. "The problem is homelessness, the solution is housing. And shelters are just a step in that process." He is involved in the process of building new shelters, which he said will likely be opened in late 2018.
Crowe said she hopes there will be as much attention on the vulnerable homeless population even when the weather's not as extreme.
"It's a winter issue that has attention right now, but we've been calling it an issue all year long. There's nowhere for people to go."