Toronto is opening another two places where people can stay warm and putting extra staff on the street as the forecast shows temperatures plunging to their lowest point this winter.
"If people follow the procedure … we can say that anyone who needs shelter tonight in the city of Toronto will find that shelter or we will find it for them," Mayor John Tory said. Among the additional measures announced on Thursday was the opening that evening of a "warming centre" with 100 cots at the Regent Park Community Centre, on the east side of downtown.
Also opening was Metro Hall, in the entertainment district, which has no cots but is a place to get relief from the cold.
Both places were to be open around the clock as long as the cold-weather alert persists.
The moves come amid an increasingly urgent debate about services for homeless people, one that has seen Mr. Tory reverse his opposition to using federal armouries as temporary housing and one that had the head of the shelter system acknowledging on Thursday that communication problems on the weekend were "inexcusable."
The mayor said that talks about opening Moss Park armoury were continuing with other levels of government and that resolution could come "very soon." It would take some days after any such agreement, though, for the military to move out its equipment and city staff to go in.
The city oversees more than 5,700 emergency and transitional shelter beds, a resource that increasingly has been stretched. City council directed a target occupancy of 90 per cent, but through the past year the system has averaged 95-per-cent occupancy.
The pressure has become acute in the recent cold spell. A temporary shelter has been opened in the Better Living Centre, a convention centre at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds, adding 140 beds, with buses detailed to ferry people to the spot. Also being added on Thursday were extra staff.
"We have strengthened our street outreach teams," said Paul Raftis, the head of the city's Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, referring to patrols that check up on vulnerable people.
"We have paramedics who are going to be out, a couple of ambulances out roaming around the core. We are sending resources from a number of divisions [to the] warming centres."
Extra staff will also be assigned to the facility at the CNE, he added, with information about where assistance is available being disseminated through community centres and libraries.
Politicians have in recent days urged members of the public to check on neighbours and keep an eye on people who are living vulnerably on the street. There are legal limits, though, on society's ability to compel someone to accept help. And Councillor Joe Cressy, in whose ward one of the newly opened warming centres lies, pointed out that some people are reluctant to visit a shelter because of previous experience in that system.
"At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of us as the city to create the conditions whereby people want to come inside," Mr. Cressy said.
"We can have street outreach workers out there on the streets making that contact, but unless we have a safe, supportive and dignified shelter system, with adequate respite spaces, with adequate shelter beds, permanent beds – unless we have that system in place, people don't want to come in, because coming in might be warm, but it doesn't feel comfortable or safe and secure."