Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Matt Elliott: Report highlights hard-learned lessons from Toronto’s shelter crisis

Protesters rally with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty at city hall to confront Mayor John Tory on the lack of shelter beds during a budget meeting in February.
Protesters rally with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty at city hall to confront Mayor John Tory on the lack of shelter beds during a budget meeting in February.

Hey, remember Toronto’s shelter crisis?

The one where it got really cold outside, the city’s shelters were near their maximum capacity, homeless people were reporting being turned away, and then Mayor John Tory got yelled at until he finally agreed to open the Moss Park armoury and other facilities as temporary shelters?

It was a whole big thing.

And yet, despite the seriousness of the issue — it was literally a matter of life or death for the city’s homeless population — it seemed, like a lot of major government snafus, that this would simply fade away without much follow-up. In the headlines one day, then gone the next.

Thankfully, government accountability offices exist.

In this case, our accountability hero is Toronto Ombudsman Susan Opler. Last week, Opler and her team released an in-depth report on the shelter capacity issues that plagued the city this winter.

It’s a damning document, concluding that “the information the City provided to the public about Winter Respite [shelter] sites was overwhelmingly outdated, inaccurate and inconsistent.”

The ombudsman was able to document three occasions where people were told there was no room at shelters, which strongly implies that there were other times where the city effectively left people out in the cold.

It also documents a litany of embarrassing operational issues.

In December, Mayor John Tory and 24 other members of Toronto City Council voted against a motion by downtown councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to pre-emptively request use of federal armouries and other buildings for use as temporary shelter space. When it became clear the city would, in fact, need such space, staff had to act quickly.

And so there were problems. The report notes that information about shelters was outdated on city websites. And that information about availability at the respite sites was tracked not with the city’s shared internal system, but with a single Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

And that the temporary shelter opened at the Better Living Centre was operated with a single cell phone that was once broken and once stolen.

Miscommunication was rampant. Conditions at shelters were rough. The ombudsman found that many shelter sites were not accessible to people with mobility challenges. At one site, the indoor air temperature was measured at less than 14 degrees.

I am ashamed to live in a city that fails this badly at supporting our most vulnerable people.

But there is a silver lining of this very dark cloud. This report from the ombudsman is set to go before Toronto City Council this week for debate. There, it can work as a blueprint for fixing these systemic problems.

I urge Tory and councillors to pay special attention to the end of the report, where they can find this bit of wisdom: “Addressing the complex social problem of homelessness is a pressing matter of public policy. As one senior City official put it, ‘words don’t set priorities; funding does.”

A little louder for the people in the back: words don’t set priorities. Funding does.

A hard-learned lesson. It’s not enough to say this won’t ever happen again — the investment needs to be in place to make damn sure of it.

This post was originally published at on 2018-03-26T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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