Toronto city council scrapped on Wednesday a recommendation to keep its warming centres open around the clock until mid-April, opting instead to call for more federal support and have staff study the idea further.
Council had been considering a recommendation from the city’s board of health to keep warming centres open 24-7 until April 15 and to declare a public health crisis over a lack of shelter space.
Coun. Michael Thompson brought a motion to strike that recommendation and replace it with a direction for city staff to report back on the feasibility of offering round-the-clock respite services.
His motion, which passed 15-11 with support from Mayor John Tory, called for the federal government to offer more support and for the Ontario government to require big municipalities to provide shelter spaces proportionate to their population.
“What we want then is to get both those two levels of government doing more,” Thompson said during Wednesday’s council meeting.
“Simply calling it a crisis doesn’t change the conditions. What we need are the resources.”
Coun. Alejandra Bravo, who is the vice-chair of the city’s board of health, pushed back against the suggestion the city lacked the resources to tackle the issue.
“Even though we didn’t make this crisis in Toronto, it’s come to our doorsteps, and we have to do something about it,” said Bravo, who voted against Thompson’s motion.
The city, she noted, was able to put 80 officers on transit in response to recent violence at a cost of $1.7 million a month – a cost the city manager has said would be absorbed in existing transit and police budgets.
“We’re investing so much in enforcement,” Bravo said. “And we know that if we get people inside, they can get support, we can value their humanity, we can respect their humanity, and treat this idea that everybody should be inside as a human right.”
During periods of extreme cold, the city opens overnight warming centres where people can rest, get food and seek referral to a shelter bed. The city’s four centres were near or completely full during a recent cold snap.
Council also voted Wednesday in favour of a motion asking that each councillor identify a suitable location for a warming centre that could be opened this winter, “subject to budget approval and availability of staffing.”
The city’s shelter system has been stretched to its limits as record numbers of people experiencing homelessness look for refuge from winter nights.
More than 10,000 people were actively homeless in December and more than 100 people a night, on average, were turned away when calling the city’s shelter referral hotline, according to city data.
Shelter service providers have reached a “breaking point,” said Gordon Tanner, the city’s general manager for shelter support and housing administration division.
In a letter to council, he outlined some of the challenges to opening the warming centres around the clock until April.
The division does not have funding for it, he wrote, and staff estimated it would cost $400,000 to operate a single warming centre capable of sheltering 50 people before accounting for any health or harm reduction supports. The city’s shelter system is already struggling to find staff.
The motion that passed Wednesday also calls on the federal government to provide funding and support for refugee claimants seeking emergency shelter in Toronto.
The number of asylum seekers and refugee claimants in the shelter system has returned to pre-pandemic levels and is expected to surpass them, according to a city report. That figure jumped from 530 in September 2021 to 2,390 in December 2022.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version carried an incorrect spelling of Coun. Alejandra Bravo’s first name.