Toronto Mayor John Tory says he will push city council to open 400 additional shelter spaces to tackle a crisis among Toronto's homeless.
The spaces will be created primarily by renting space in hotels, he said, and by urging existing shelters to find more space for beds, rather than by opening the city's armouries, as some advocates for the homeless have suggested.
The initiative is expected to cost about $10-million, the mayor said. He believes the city can draw the necessary money from its reserve fund and will have many of the beds available in a matter of weeks.
Mr. Tory said he would not be declaring an emergency, as his staff have advised him that it would not be a proper use of the legal provision.
"The advice I've received is what we should be focusing on is giving beds to people who need them and not issuing declarations," Mr. Tory said. "This is an urgent situation and we do have a proposed plan to address it. I do not want anyone who needs a shelter space to be unable to get one."
The mayor has decided not to ask for the city's armouries to be opened, as they have in the past, because they're not well-suited to the task, he said.
"Staff believe there are places that are more appropriate in the city than the armouries," the mayor said.
City councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said she's encouraged that Mr. Tory is responding to the crisis, but says his policy response may be short-sighted. The shelter system won't be able to add many beds, so the bulk of the additional capacity will have to come from hotels, she said.
"Four hundred new beds is encouraging, but I think he'll be spending $10-million on renting hotel rooms," Ms. Wong-Tam said, adding that the drawback is that hotels are expensive and can be isolating. They also lack staff on-site to provide health care and connect people to support services, she said.
Cathy Crowe, a Toronto street nurse and visiting professor at Ryerson University, said the proposed solutions were both disappointing and alarming.
"We've already got overcrowding in the system," Ms. Crowe said. "By adding 400 spaces to existing shelters, he's adding crowding to crowding, in an environment where we're just coming out of an 18-month long Strep A outbreak."
At Seaton House, the largest men's shelter in the country, Ms. Crowe said that they've already added 30 cots to an area intended to be a space for people to sit and have coffee. At the drop-in sites the city has opened this year, many people are sleeping on mats on the floor, Ms. Crowe said. In other years when the city turned to the armouries to provide between 100 and 150 additional beds, they were well-run and effective, she said.
Mr. Tory was flanked at the press conference by several people from the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness who, according to the mayor, offered their support for his proposals, although they did not speak. He was also joined by city councillor James Pasternak and council's budget chief, Gary Crawford, who said he's confident of being able to find the necessary funds.
Mr. Crawford pointed out that on one night last week, the shelter system was at 96-per-cent occupancy.
The mayor said that although much of the work is on short-term projects, he continues to focus on long-term solutions. These include providing more affordable housing and more supportive housing, or "housing with help," as he put it, which can assist in tackling the combination of health and social challenges faced by many homeless people.
Statistics compiled by the city in October showed that 70 homeless people had died in Toronto since the start of the year. The number of people using homeless shelters in the city, 5,400 per night in November, was up 30 per cent last month compared with the previous year.
There is also a significant share of refugees needing shelter, Mr. Tory said. Figures compiled by the city show the average number of refugee claimants using shelter beds every night rose by three times from February, 2016 to September, 2017, from 456 per night to 1,271 per night. Refugee claimants made up roughly one quarter of all those seeking beds, according to the report by city staff.