Toronto ombudsman probing ‘confusion’ over homeless services

Toronto ombudsman probing ‘confusion’ over homeless services
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Toronto’s ombudsman is launching a probe of city services for homeless people amid ongoing questions and confusion over shelter capacity during a potentially deadly cold snap.

Susan Opler announced her “enquiry” Tuesday in a news release citing “recent confusion’ over whether the crowded shelter system has room for homeless Torontonians who want out of the cold.

“We are concerned about reports that some people were mistakenly told there wasn’t any space for them on December 30,” Opler said in the release. “Ombudsman Toronto wants to ensure that these essential services for vulnerable people are being optimally delivered.

The enquiry — shorter, with smaller scope than a full ombudsman inquiry — will update Opler’s report last March that recommended the city’s shelter and support housing administration improve cold-weather drop-in services, and ensure the changes were made.

Opler noted the city is conducting its own review of communications and protocols but has promised to co-operate with her probe.

“Our enquiry will focus on the cold-weather needs of the city’s homeless, and whether the city is providing services in a way that ensures people’s dignity, safety and comfort,” she said.

Also Tuesday it emerged that city staff appeared, for the second time in a matter of days, to tell a homeless advocate that a temporary respite centre, opened to deal with an ongoing shelter space shortage, was full even though cots were available.

Homeless advocate Doug Johnson recorded a phone conversation he said he had with a central intake worker, from the city’s shelter, support and housing office, around 11 p.m. Monday. Centralized intake is the main access point for people seeking emergency shelter for homeless Torontonians.

Johnson asked if there were any beds available in the west end, or in the Better Living Centre, according to the recording.

“They are filled up,” the female intake worker said. She suggested he travel across the city to a drop-in centre on Peter St., or call back later. Toronto temperatures plunged to minus 21.3C on Monday.

Johnson decided to see for himself after reading media reports that homeless advocates were being told there wasn’t space available at shelters, or respite or warming centres, including the Better Living Centre, when in fact there was.

He and a friend arrived at the Better Living Centre, a respite centre at Exhibition Place the city opened last month, at about 11:30 p.m. Johnson’s friend pretended to be homeless.

“This guy doesn’t have any place to stay tonight,” Johnson can be heard saying in a recording.

“Yeah, yeah he can come in,” a man responded, confirming a cot was available.

Fred Victor Shelter, which is running the respite centre at the Better Living Centre, said it had spots open all day and night Monday and continues to have spots open today. Right now it has about 140 cots set up and can add more.

“I am looking over at 30 to 40 cots not currently being used,” said Mark Aston, executive director, at the centre on Tuesday afternoon. “We are not turning people away. Our staff knows that and we’ve also instructed security here, nobody is not to be let in, period.”

Saturday night, a Toronto Overdose Prevention Society staff member at the Moss Park supervised injection site had to cram people into the heated trailer to escape what felt like minus 29 C with the wind chill. She had been told no spaces were available at shelters, respite or warming centres.

Other advocates said they have been told the same thing.

Johnson said he made the recordings to show that “frontline workers are telling the truth.”

The next day, city staff said there had been available space, including at the Better Living Centre. Aston said Fred Victor Shelter worked with city staff following the incident.

Aston is frustrated it appears to have happened again, he said.

“People need shelter and are having difficulty finding it when it’s available right here,” Aston said.

Homeless advocates and some city councillors are accusing senior city staff and Mayor John Tory’s office of downplaying a crisis by referring to “spaces” that might be only a yoga mat on a floor, and citing 4 a.m. vacancy figures that don’t reflect a full facility that earlier may have turned people away.

Street nurse Cathy Crowe is calling for the city to immediately , at Moss Park and Fort York, as temporary shelters, warning that Toronto’s intransigence could add to a death toll for homeless people that she said reached at least 80 in 2017.

By Tuesday afternoon, her petition calling for the armoury openings had more than 35,500 names.

City statistics released Tuesday show that, while some vacancies were reported in some categories of overnight care, Toronto’s homeless services remain full to bursting in potentially deadly cold.

The overall occupancy rate was listed at between 94 per cent and 95 per cent but shelter space for families was full between Dec. 29 and Jan. 1.

Spots for women and youth remained around 98 per cent full, according to the 4 a.m. daily census, with only room for families in motels — many of them refugees, staying outside the downtown core — showing any capacity.

The statistics also show that on New Years’ Day more than 440 people were in 24-hour drop-ins and winter respites, which could be chairs or mats on floor but are not shelters with beds and services stipulated by city criteria.

Concern over the fate of homeless Torontonians, and the city’s response, has spurred some activists, volunteers and businesspeople to and give people in need a warm, safe place to stay.
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