Tory promises more shelter beds after man’s body found in burned shed overnight

WATCH: Activists are demanding more housing and more shelter beds after a homeless man was found dead in Scarborough overnight. Dave Trafford reports.

TORONTO – John Tory promises to address homelessness in the next city budget Wednesday after another homeless man died in Toronto – the fourth in the past week.

The latest to die outside was staying in a refuge made of plywood and cardboard boxes at a Scarborough industrial site which caught fire overnight.

Police haven’t released his name but Rev. John Stephenson, a pastor at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in Scarborough, said he was staying there for the night. The man sometimes stayed in a rooming house, sometimes on the street, Stephenson said, and was being put up in the makeshift shelter of a man named Norm, who visited Stephenson at his church.

Norm had given the man a propane heater to keep warm overnight. Stephenson believes that may have led to the fire.

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“It’s a tremendous tragedy where the fellow whose site it was let the other fellow stay in half his hut last night and when the fire broke out, he couldn’t save him. He couldn’t save him,” Stephenson said.

“That there are people in Scarborough that have to live in these conditions is a tragedy.”

The city’s emergency warming shelters have been open since last week, when Tory told Toronto Public Health to declare a cold weather alert regardless of the actual temperature after a man was found dead in a bus shelter near Yonge and Dundas Square. (Public Health came under fire for not having called an emergency cold alert prior to the man’s death. The cutoff for such alerts is officially -15 degrees, although the health agency has some leeway in that regard. It isn’t clear whether the man’s death could have been prevented by an alert, which provides for warming centres, with additional beds, to open)

Tory said Wednesday the city will open more shelter beds available by the end of the week.

”We will have some additional capacity by the end of the week for people who need shelter,” Tory told reporters.

City staff are currently working on a review of the city’s overburdened shelter system.

Homelessness activists have complained for years that the city’s shelters are full nearly every night and the city’s stats generally back up that claim.  According to the city of Toronto website, which publishes a daily census of shelter use, 93 per cent – 4,091 of 4,424 – of the city’s shelter beds were used on Jan. 13.

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But Stephenson said that’s beside the point.

“Shelters are not comfortable places for many. Often there are drug problems, there are violence problems, there are theft problems, and they would rather be out and find a place somewhere out here to stay the night,” Stephenson said.

Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, a research coordinator at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, argued the city and other levels of government should focus on getting people long-term housing, instead.

“Shelters are just an emergency situation,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “They’re band-aids and people aren’t supposed to stay in them for more than two weeks and we have people who stay in them for will.”

Toronto’s waiting list for affordable housing hit a record 165,000 households in September, 2014.

There’s also a lack of supportive housing for people with mental illness or other needs that preclude their living alone. There are several thousand people on that wait list. “If there was housing with dignity, then that’s what we’d want,” Stephenson said.

Volunteers at the Toronto Homeless Memorial have been tracking the number of identifiable homeless people who have died on Toronto’s streets going back to 1985 when just one was identified.  In 2014, the number was 18. The number of people who died on Toronto’s streets has dropped dramatically since it peaked in 2005 when 72 homeless people died.

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But Gulliver-Garcia warned the number from the Toronto Homeless Memorial aren’t entirely accurate. She said roughly 75 per cent of deaths among people experiencing homelessness go unreported.

With files from Peter Kim and Dave Trafford

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