Toronto is revisiting a shelved proposal to use a federal armoury to cope with unprecedented demand on its homeless shelter system, the city's mayor said Wednesday.
John Tory and members of council had rejected a motion to open the Moss Park Armoury to the homeless last month, weeks before an extended cold snap gripped the city and dramatically increased demand for shelter spaces.
As temperatures dropped to around -20 C for several nights and thousands of residents signed a petition calling on Tory to revisit the armoury proposal, the mayor initially said other city-owned properties presented better options.
Tory reversed course on Wednesday. He said the city was in talks with Ottawa to turn the Moss Park Armoury into a seventh winter respite site, a temporary shelter opened up during cold months.
Much rests on whether the facility can be available 24 hours a day, said the mayor, who noted that when the armoury sheltered the homeless in past years, it could only be used overnight as the facility was used by the Canadian Forces during the day.
Tory said he personally planned to reinforce the city's request, which he said would add about 100 beds to the overtaxed system that has seen demand surge by 30 per cent over the same time last year.
"Demand continues to increase and the system is undoubtedly under strain," Tory told reporters. "Even with increased capacity, this leaves us too close to the edge in these unprecedented weather and social conditions."
Tory said the frigid weather was not the only cause of the spike in demand on the shelter system. He said an influx of refugees in the past two years, coupled with what he described as a mental-health crisis and rising housing costs, are also critical factors.
He said mental-health supports will be key for any long-term solution for the city's homeless.
"We pride ourselves on our health-care system, and yet a majority of people in our shelter systems and on our streets are not getting the health care they need — in this case, mental-health care — and this must be addressed," Tory said.
Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said in a statement Wednesday that his office will be scheduling a meeting with Tory to discuss mental health and homelessness in Toronto.
"I remain whole-heartedly committed to continuing to work with Toronto, as well as communities in all corners of Ontario, as we continue to build a mental health system that can be there for all of us when we need it," Hoskins said.
Public Safety Canada said in a statement that it has not received an official request for assistance, but added that Ottawa, the Ontario government and the city are "working closely to identify and evaluate options."
In the short term, however, the city said efforts are focused on providing more shelter spaces. Toronto has added 30 new beds at one major downtown centre and 10 more are coming in the next few weeks, Tory said.
The city is following through on its commitment to increase shelter capacity by 400 beds in the coming months and to build new facilities in 2018, the mayor added. Those measures will go ahead regardless of whether the Moss Park Armoury becomes a respite centre, he said. If it is approved, it will offer 24-hour support until mid-April, he added.
Kapri Rabin, executive director of the not-for-profit agency Street Health, applauded the city's proposal to use the armoury.
"What's particularly positive about the armoury in the downtown east is it's located in an area where there is a huge community of folks who have no place to go and are in temporary 24-hour facilities that are not suitable for people to actually live in," she said, noting that some of those centres do not have amenities like showers.
But Rabin said the move does not address the growing long-term need for more shelter space and affordable housing.
"I think there needs to be a much larger discussion around the crisis that actually exists in the shelter system, which isn't a new crisis," she said. "The city is always in this position of having to respond to things at the last minute."
The executive director of Covenant House Toronto, an agency for homeless youth, said more shelter space isn't the solution for getting people off the street.
"Shelter beds are critical and I think there is a particular number that will be required on an ongoing basis to sustain the emergencies that people experience ... but the longer-term solutions are those more affordable housing options that will get people out of the shelter system more quickly," Bruce Rivers said.
He said dealing with homelessness should not just the city's responsibility, but that of all levels of government, as well as the real-estate industry.
The city's ability to address the needs of the homeless is now the subject of two inquiries following confusion over the availability of spaces during the prolonged cold snap.
Advocates have said in recent days that they tried to find spots for homeless people only to be told that they were completely full. The city has said there are still beds available and blamed miscommunication for the confusion.
Calling the miscommunication "indefensible," Tory said he welcomes the inquiries recently announced by the city's general manager of shelter support as well as Toronto's ombudsman.
The latest data from the city indicates Toronto's shelters operated at between 94 and 95 per cent capacity on the weekend with 5,460 people staying in the shelter system on Jan. 1. Another 445 people used winter respite centres.
— With files from Daniela Germano
Paola Loriggio and Michelle McQuigge , The Canadian Press