Editorial: Keep Toronto's shelter beds

Winter is coming and Toronto City Council seems to have no adequate plan to stop homeless shelters from disappearing.

Image of an old man with white beard

Homeless John | Photo: IrvingGFM CC0

The Salvation Army’s 124-bed men’s Hope Shelter at the corner of College and McCaul closed in April and the 70-bed YWCA’s Beatrice House at 177 Caledonia Rd. for women and their children experiencing homelessness shut their doors in June.

The City has also approved plans in principle to tear down Seaton House, a 543-bed shelter on George Street near Dundas Street. Many agree that something needs to happen with Seaton House, but demolition without decent shelter in the interim is a recipe for disaster.

As part of its George Street Revitalization project, city council approved plans to replace Seaton House with a combination of emergency shelter and long-term care beds as well as well affordable and market price housing. But according to city reports on the revitalization, tearing down Seaton House and building the new complex in its place would reduce Toronto’s emergency shelter capacity by another 140 beds.

While investing in new and affordable housing is essential, losing emergency shelter beds in the interim is a callous trade off. In 2013, City Council set a target to keep the occupancy of Toronto shelters at or below the 90 percent mark. This month, Toronto shelters are operating at close to 100 per cent of their capacity.

Unfortunately, Toronto’s shelter system is already overburdened. As the colder weather comes, people experiencing homelessness will face a tougher time coming in from the cold.

Homeless Hub, a research centre based out of York University, noted that Toronto’s homelessness population has been increasing the last four years. While the effort to build more affordable housing is important, Homeless Hub Research co-ordinator, Tanya Gulliver-Garcia is right when she said, “so is making sure the needs of people who are currently homeless get met.”

The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) suspects that plans to demolish Seaton House are part of a drive to move Toronto’s poor away from the downtown core, where vital services are. In an open letter, OCAP argued that there is “no meaningful plan to replace the emergency shelter beds that will be lost at Seaton House.” The group is calling for an end to closing shelters, “unless and until alternative spaces in the same area of the city have been secured” and will be taking their demands to city council on Nov. 3.

Toronto must do more to ensure adequate space for our most vulnerable people. Four men experiencing homelessness died in the cold of January 2015, compelling the City of Toronto to open up more temporary shelters. These kinds of tragedies are avoidable, let’s not wait until they happen again.

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Editorial: Keep Toronto's shelter beds