Toronto to review shelter system in wake of cold-weather crisis facing homeless

TORONTO — Complaints about the lack of adequate shelter for the homeless in the midst of extreme cold weather have prompted both the City of Toronto and its ombudsman to launch formal investigations.

Advocates have said in recent days that they tried to find spots for homeless people in some of the city’s 62 shelters only to be told that they were completely full.

The city has said there are still beds available for the homeless, blaming miscommunication for the confusion.

The city’s general manager of shelter support, Paul Raftis, said he’s asked staff to review the intake process and communication — in particular the accuracy real-time information about shelter bed availability.

“There’s no question we have to review the system that we have in place,” Raftis said at a news conference on Tuesday.

“We need to improve upon that, we need to look at technology to help us with that real-time communication and we need to investigate and look into the processes and protocols we have in place to do that.”

Raftis said he is working with the city’s ombudsman, Susan Opler, on the situation.

Opler announced on Tuesday her office will begin an inquiry over the confusion in recent days that will focus on the winter needs of the homeless and “whether the city is providing services in a way that ensures people’s dignity, safety and comfort.”

Opler said her office has been following the situation closely since delivering its report last year on the city’s cold weather drop-in program.

Molly Bannerman, a volunteer at an unsanctioned interim safe injection site at Moss Park, said there just isn’t space available, regardless of what the city says.

“It’s not a one-time communication glitch or a problem with central intake — I’ve called shelters directly and been told they’re completely full,” Bannerman said.

A fair number of those who use the new trailer at the safe injection site are homeless, she said, and they are struggling during this cold stretch that has seen temperatures drop to – 20 C.

“Their hands are swollen, they’ve got black spots on them and they’re cracked and bleeding and have wounds on their faces that are bleeding” Bannerman said.

“People are in rough shape, coming in saying they’ve spent the nights outside. People are coming in and falling asleep and not waking up until we’re closed.”

According to the latest data from the city, the shelters operated between 94 to 95 per cent capacity over the weekend with 5,460 people staying in the shelter system on Jan. 1. Another 445 people used the winter respite centres.

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