January 3, 2018 7:46 am
Updated: January 3, 2018 9:38 pm

Toronto looking into opening Moss Park armoury to help deal with homeless seeking shelter

WATCH ABOVE: Weeks after Toronto city council voted down a motion to request the opening of the armouries to accommodate the homeless during this extreme cold, Mayor John Tory reveals he is now willing to go ahead. Caryn Lieberman explains.

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Toronto is revisiting a shelved proposal to use a federal armoury to cope with unprecedented demand on its homeless shelter system, the city’s mayor said Wednesday.

John Tory and members of council had rejected a motion to open the Moss Park Armoury to the homeless last month, weeks before an extended cold snap gripped the city and dramatically increased demand for shelter spaces.

As temperatures dropped to around -20 C for several nights and thousands of residents signed a petition calling on Tory to revisit the armoury proposal, the mayor initially said other city-owned properties presented better options.

Tory reversed course on Wednesday, saying the city was in talks with Ottawa to turn the Moss Park Armoury into a seventh winter respite site, a temporary shelter opened up during the cold months.

Much rests on whether the facility can be available 24 hours a day, the mayor said, noting that when the armoury had sheltered the homeless in past years it could only be used overnight as the facility was used by the Canadian Forces during the day.

Tory said he personally planned to reinforce the city’s request, which he said would add about 100 beds to the overtaxed system that has seen demand surge by 30 per cent over the same time last year. Public Safety Canada, which handles such requests, could not immediately be reached for comment.

“Demand continues to increase and the system is undoubtedly under strain,” Tory told reporters. “Even with increased capacity, this leaves us too close to the edge in these unprecedented weather and social conditions.”

READ MORE: Toronto ombudsman investigating ‘confusion’ over shelter spaces, winter programs for homeless

Tory said the frigid weather was not the only cause of the spike in demand on the shelter system. He said an influx of refugees in the past two years, coupled with what he described as a mental health crisis and rising housing costs in the city, are also critical factors.

He said mental health supports will be key for any long-term solution to the city’s homelessness situation.

“We pride ourselves on our health care system, and yet a majority of people in our shelter systems and on our streets are not getting the health care they need. In this case, mental health care. And this must be addressed.”

WATCH: City has seen ‘dramatically increased need’ for homeless shelters: Tory

Short-term, however, the city’s efforts are focused on providing more shelter spaces.

Toronto has already added 30 new beds at one major downtown centre, with 10 more on the way in the next few weeks, Tory said.

The city is following through on its commitment to increase shelter capacity by 400 beds in the coming months and to build new facilities in 2018, the mayor added. These measures will go ahead regardless of whether or not the Moss Park Armoury becomes a respite centre, he said, adding that if approved it would offer 24-hour support until mid-April.

WATCH: City may open seventh winter respite site to provide homeless beds

Kapri Rabin, executive director of the not-for-profit agency Street Health, applauded the city’s proposal to use the armoury.

“What’s particularly positive about the armoury in the downtown east is it’s located in an area where there is a huge community of folks who have no place to go and are in temporary 24-hour facilities that are not suitable for people to actually live in,” she said, noting that some of those centres did not have amenities like showers.

But Rabin said the move does not address the growing long-term need in the city for more shelter space and affordable housing.

“I think there needs to be a much larger discussion around the crisis that actually exists in the shelter system, which isn’t a new crisis,” she said.

“The city is always in this position of having to respond to things at the last minute.”

The city’s ability to address the needs of the homeless is now the subject of two inquiries following confusion over the availability of spaces during the prolonged cold snap.

Advocates have said in recent days that they tried to find spots for homeless people in some of the city’s shelters only to be told that they were completely full. The city has said there are still beds available for the homeless, blaming miscommunication for the confusion.

Calling the miscommunication “indefensible,” Tory said he welcomed the recently announced inquiries from both the city’s general manager of shelter support as well as Toronto’s ombudsman.

According to the latest data from the city, Toronto’s shelters operated between 94 to 95 per cent capacity over the weekend with 5,460 people staying in the shelter system on Jan. 1. Another 445 people used the winter respite centres.

– With files from Daniela Germano

© 2018 The Canadian Press

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