‘People are just out there trying to survive:’ New data suggests dozens of people are being turned away from Toronto shelters each night

Each night dozens of homeless individuals are being been told that there is no shelter bed available for them and the situation appears to be worsening, newly released city data shows.

The data from the city’s Shelter Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) was released for the first time last month.

It reveals that over the last year-and-a-half an average of 40 people a night have been denied shelter after calling central intake in search of a bed.

But alarmingly the trend appears to have worsened so far in 2022.

The monthly data shows that over the first six months of the year an average of 63 people have been turned away each night amid a steady increase in the overall occupancy of the shelter system. It is a situation that homeless advocates say is consistent with what they are seeing on the ground.

Shelter spaces, they say, are becoming increasingly hard to find, leaving many people with few options other than to sleep on the street.

“More and more I am finding that you call and then you are on hold to even talk to a human being for a long time. Then you get somebody and they say call back in an hour, there is no spaces available for men, or for women, or for a trans person, or whatever is requested. And a number of people I work with don’t have phones themselves, they are poor,” Greg Cook, who is an outreach worker with Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, told CP24.com. “What that means is that when the drop-in closes at 9 p.m. or my outreach shift ends, then the person doesn’t even have the ability to call back even if they think it is worthwhile and I am left with ‘Well do you want a sleeping bag?’ as the best option, which is really, really sad.”

Cook said that when there are beds available staff at central intake are usually able to place a hold on one for up to two hours, at which point he can provide individuals seeking shelter for the night with a cab voucher or transit token to get them to the shelter.

But he said that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find available beds, as the city’s homeless crisis worsens.

He said that the full extent of the problem isn’t even captured by the data given there is no way to know how many people “don’t even bother to try anymore.”

The situation has him concerned for the winter when colder overnight temperatures and the planned closure of several temporary hotel shelters could further exacerbate the problem.

“Especially when the weather is severe it is really, really hard. I have been on outreach shifts where we are giving out Tim’s cards because at least then somebody might be able to have a few hours inside and during the pandemic that wasn’t even an option,” he said. “I go home at night to a warm bed knowing that people I just talked to are outside shivering. It is why we hand out sleeping bags as an organization every year. It is because we want people to stay alive and sadly a lot are dying.”

City council had asked for data to be made public

The release of the data on shelter referrals comes roughly three months after a request by city council to make it public.

Gord Tanner, who is the acting general manager of SSHA, was not made available for an interview to discuss the data.

However, a spokesperson for the city said that the numbers do “reflect that the emergency shelter system continues to face significant demand.”

“Over the past five years, the city has continuously added and maintained new capacity in the shelter system. The shelter system is now accommodating nearly 2,000 more people a night than it was in April 2021 and the number of beds currently available for single individuals or couples experiencing homelessness is at a five-year high. However, the homelessness sector faces significant challenges – in Toronto and in other major cities across North America,” Erin Whitton wrote. “The stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis, and the critical lack of supportive and affordable housing all contribute to many people facing significant hardships, placing them in need of emergency shelter and support. As well, the lifting of border restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increase in refugee families seeking emergency shelter.”

Toronto’s shelter system typically runs at about 98 per cent capacity.

But homeless advocates have long contended that those numbers wrongly suggest that beds are available when that often isn’t the case.

The data seems to support that.

For example, in June there were an average of 553 calls per night to central intake. On average about 30 of those calls resulted in individuals being referred to a shelter space.

But nearly 100 individuals each night were “unmatched,” meaning that staff were unable to find a suitable bed for them.

In those instances, the city says that case workers are trained to “encourage the individual to call back later” in the event a space becomes available and to share information about other nearby available services, such as drop-in programs, where they could wait for referral to a shelter bed.

“What is helpful with this data is at least they can’t get away with not telling the truth. Their own data shows that when people try to find shelter beds they can’t. So even if the shelter says 97 per cent full it doesn’t mean a bed is available,” Cook told CP24.com. “I think it is helpful (the data) but frankly having tried to push for changes I am not that hopeful (that it will change anything). I’d hope at the very least they (the city) would stop like encampment evictions because people don’t have a place to go. People are just out there trying to survive.”

The city says that the data will be updated monthly going forward.

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