Only one of the four temporary respite sites announced by the City of Toronto last summer is fully functional.
And a location for one of the sites has yet to be found.
Advocates for Toronto’s homeless say the delays are more proof of the need to call for a state of emergency to deal with homelessness, and leverage funding to get people off the streets.
“It’s definitely not acceptable,” said Cathy Crowe, a Ryerson distinguished practitioner, street nurse and advocate for Toronto’s homeless population.
“Homelessness has been worsening for the last couple years and we’re now in a state where we are having to rely on this second tier set of shelters for over a thousand people,” said Crowe. “And there are still people left out on the street.”
Following the Ombudsman Toronto Report “Enquiry into City of Toronto Winter Respite Services 2017-18 Season,”in March 2018, which slammed the city for giving people experiencing homelessness outdated and inaccurate information, the city announced it would be opening four temporary respite structures for the 2018-2019 winter season.
Each site, costing approximately $2.5 million, would provide 600 spaces for Toronto’s homeless.
City officials said the respite sites would be functional in December or January. Now, the planned date has moved to March or April.
City councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Gord Perks asked city council to declare the homelessness and housing crisis a state of emergency during a press conference last week, where they viewed a video of the conditions inside a 24-hour respite site.
Construction workers were busy last Saturday at 351 Lake Shore Boulevard E., pouring concrete over the future respite site to prevent surface contamination.
Originally expected to open in February, the 351 Lake Shore Blvd. E. and 701 Fleet St. respite sites are now anticipated for late March to mid-April.
Crowe, however, suspects these sites will be permanent.
“I don’t see the city ever being able to close these facilities,” she said, “unless there is a dramatic effort that could be released with a state of emergency declaration.”
The 351 Lake Shore Blvd. E. site is next to the former “Tent City” site – the subject of the 1999 film Shelter from the Storm – documenting how homeless people were evicted from the property.
In the end, more than 100 former residents won social housing in the form of a pilot rent supplement program.
Crowe, who had almost daily involvement in Tent City, where she worked with the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, has seen Toronto’s homelessness crisis grow over the past 15 years, but particularly in the last few years.
The Ryersonian asked the city why it has taken so long to get the temporary respite sites up and running, and find a location for the fourth one.
Frank Molinari, the interim director for facilities management, said they are not exempt from various policies that govern the construction of a facility.
“The contractor for 351 Lake Shore Blvd. E. has followed all the protocols required to obtain construction permits. Weather conditions and the holiday period have delayed construction.
“For projects supporting the shelter program the average timeline would be two years,” said Molinari. “For these [Sprung Instant Structures Ltd.] structures, we have successfully reduced that time to less than one year.”
The city is maintaining respites at other locations, such as 545 Lake Shore Blvd. E. and the Queen Elizabeth Building at Exhibition Place, until the new locations are available.
“The same number of spaces in respite has been, and will continue to be maintained while construction is completed,” added Molinari.