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New city data shows 40 people a night on average turned away from Toronto homeless shelters

An average of 40 people a night were told there was no bed available for them in Toronto homeless shelters in the last year and a half, newly released city data shows.

And for the first six months of this year, an average of 63 people a night were “unmatched to shelter,” the city says about the data released on July 25.

More than three months after it was directed to do so, the city’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) has released monthly average data showing the number of residents denied shelter throughout the night and how it handled and categorized calls for shelter from January 2021 to June 2022.

Homeless advocates say the numbers are unacceptable, deeply concerning and show that Toronto’s shelter system is not only at full capacity, but not working as intended. They also say the average numbers are an “undercount” and most likely much higher given that families are handled through a separate process and couples are counted as one caller.

And they say the average number is clearly on the rise, which means an increasing number of unhoused people have nowhere to go in Toronto. 

The data is from what is called Central Intake, a city-run telephone-based service that offers referrals to emergency shelter, other overnight accommodation and information about homelessness services. One set of data is a count of people still in the shelter system queue at 4 a.m. The other set of data shows the type and outcome assigned to every call handled by Central Intake.

According to the city’s Daily Shelter and Overnight Service Usage webpage, a total of 8,014 people used Toronto’s shelter system on Tuesday, Aug. 2. The city says Toronto runs the largest shelter system in Canada, with about 100 shelters.

‘There’s no inside for people to go to’

A.J. Withers, a member of IMPACT, Information Mobilization for Public Accountability Collective Toronto, a grassroots collective that believes in the importance of public knowledge to lay the groundwork for social justice, said on Wednesday that the number of people denied shelter is appalling and the system is beyond a crisis point now.

“It means that people’s lives are literally put at risk, both because of violence on the street and because of the possibility of weather risks. And the city has a responsibility to people who are living on the streets. And it is absolutely neglecting the most vulnerable folks who are living in the city,” Withers said.

“The city has been saying that people should simply move inside. And the reality is that there’s no inside for people to go to. It’s been turning dozens of people away,” Withers added.

“And at the same time that they’re criminalizing people in parks for setting up tents, they’re also providing no alternatives.”

A.J. Withers, a member of IMPACT, Information Mobilization for Public Accountability Collective Toronto, a grassroots collective, says: ‘We actually have no idea what the actual total number of people being turned away is. We have only a tiny, tiny piece of the picture.’ (Submitted by A.J. Withers)

Withers, incoming Ruth Wynn Woodward Junior Chair at Simon Fraser University and a researcher on Toronto homelessness, said the city has not provided data in its Open Data portal on families denied shelter and therefore it is impossible to calculate a more accurate average number of people unable to obtain shelter space nightly in Toronto.

“We actually have no idea what the actual total number of people being turned away is. We have only a tiny, tiny piece of the picture.” 

Withers added that unhoused people could freeze to death in winter if they have nowhere to go.

And at the same time that the city is turning people away nightly from shelter, it is closing shelter hotels, Withers said. The Better Living Centre, 195 Princes’ Blvd., and the former Days Inn hotel on 1684 Queen Street E, for example, were closed in April. SSHA has said it plans to close up to three more temporary shelter sites this year. The city has said it intends to extend the leases of the majority of shelter hotels until April 2023.

‘The system is not doing what it’s supposed to do’

Greg Cook, another member of IMPACT and an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, said the data shows that the system is not working. He said he is aware that some unhoused people have given up trying to obtain space by calling Central Intake.

“The data shows that people aren’t getting what they need to survive. The system is not doing what it’s supposed to do,” Cook said. “Something drastic needs to happen.”

Greg Cook, another member of IMPACT and an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, says: ‘The data shows that people aren’t getting what they need to survive.’ (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

The city, for its part, acknowledged that the numbers of unhoused people seeking space in shelters and being told there are no beds available is on the rise.

“Data shows that Central Intake has seen increasing call volumes and unmatched callers, despite ongoing investments from the city to expand the shelter system to meet demand,” Jacqueline Solomon, communications advisor for the city’s strategic public and employee communications, said in an email this week.

“The emergency shelter system plays an important role in supporting the health and wellness of those experiencing homelessness, but its intended purpose is to provide short-term accommodation for people. The solution to homelessness is permanent housing with supports.”

City says system facing ‘significant challenges’

The city acknowledged, however, that its shelter system is under stress.

“The homelessness sector faces significant challenges, in Toronto as well as other major cities across North America,” Solomon said. “The stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, and the need for more supportive and affordable housing all can contribute to people facing significant hardships, placing them in need of emergency shelter and support.”

She said the city is working with the provincial and federal governments to secure more funding to address Toronto’s housing crisis.

As for families, she said the city considers them to be household units and they are not included in the data. “People seeking space in family sector programs are supported through a different process that ensures they have indoor accommodations while waiting for access to shelter,” she said.

The Maxwell Meighen Centre, a downtown Toronto shelter funded by the City of Toronto and operated by the Salvation Army, is pictured here in February 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Gord Tanner, acting general manager of SSHA, was not available for comment, but said in an interview in April after the city decided that the division should release the numbers that the shelter system continues to be “very full.” He said he believes it is not in crisis. He added that releasing the information will enable city council to make decisions on whether to open additional beds.

“This data will definitely demonstrate that there is continued increased demand for people calling Central Intake in seeking shelter space in our system. And that is an ongoing issue that we’re dealing with at the City of Toronto. It’ll show there’s continued demand for shelter space in the City of Toronto and sometimes unmet demand for that space,” Tanner said.

“I think it’s an important measure of what the demand for shelter services looks like in a large city like Toronto. It demystifies, if you will, some of the questions that people have.”

Coun. Paul Ainslie, who represents Scarborough-Guildwood and who pushed for the data to be released, said in an interview in April that he thinks there may be a connection between the data of people denied shelter and the record number of deaths of people experiencing homelessness last year. A total of 216 unhoused people died in 2021.

“I have a hard time believing that there’s not a correlation between those people that died on our streets and that we’re turning people away from our shelters,” he said.

“I really don’t understand why staff won’t admit that we have a problem. I don’t think it’s anything to be embarrassed about. I’m embarrassed as a councillor that people are living on our streets. And we need to do more about it. But I think we also need the data readily available.”

Ainslie said the release of the data holds staff and city council accountable, it helps councillors to identify relevant issues, and it should prompt the city to take action.

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