When Toronto was hit with extremely cold weather this week, with temperatures dropping as low as -13 C early Wednesday, just one warming centre was open downtown for vulnerable people across the city.
That’s a problem, says street nurse and longtime advocate Cathy Crowe.
As part of its response to extreme cold alerts, the city opens a hallway in Metro Hall with cots, curtains for privacy and a capacity for 50 people. This time, the city opened up the warming centre on Monday, in advance of the alert, and is keeping it open until noon on Thursday, even though the alert ended on Wednesday at noon.
But while that’s a step the city hasn’t taken before, Crowe says it’s not enough.
“Metro Hall is just one little space when there’s hundreds and hundreds of homeless people outside,” she said. “The city of Toronto is an enormous geographic area. Even people on Bloor St., for example, are not necessarily going to hike to Metro Hall. Physically, how do they get there without transportation? And there’s Scarborough, Etobicoke.”
Crowe said the city should open at least four to six more warming centres, “so they could be in different geographic parts of the city.”
On Monday night, she noted, Metro Hall was at capacity within an hour and 20 minutes, although the city said it did take in about 20 more people as well.
“Which is really, really remarkable given people only just found out it was opening that day,” Crowe said, adding that one outreach worker arrived with someone who could not get a cot and chose to step back out into the bitter cold rather than spend the night in a chair. “It just seems kind of illogical to only have one.”
Gord Tanner, the city’s director of homelessness initiatives and prevention services, said that although only one warming centre is open during an alert, the city is about halfway through rolling out its winter plan, which will see an additional 485 new beds in the shelter system.
There are also seven existing 24-hour respite centres, closer to the city centre though one is in Scarborough, and drop-in locations to get people out the cold, Tanner said.
“Everyone was caught off a little bit by the early arrival of winter but I’m super happy we got that warming centre open on Monday in advance of the really bad weather coming,” he said.
During an extreme cold alert, shelters and respite centres are asked to relax their standards around capacity. The city also distributes transit tokens at all these locations and deploys more outreach workers on the streets to bring people indoors.
“This would be the sixth winter season that the city has opened up more beds than have ever been available before in the city,” Tanner said. “We currently don’t have plans to expand the warming centre option, but it’s not to say we wouldn’t look at that in the future.”
On Tuesday, all shelters in Toronto, apart from motel programs, were operating at or near capacity, as were respite centres. Both of the city’s 24-hour women’s drop-ins were over capacity.
Crowe said the death of one homeless person was reported Tuesday night, adding up to a total of eight who have died within the past month.
“This is a population that is very, very vulnerable,” she said.
Relaxing capacity standards “just adds to crowding,” Crowe said, instead arguing for more warming centres.
“The warming centre is a bit of a harm reduction kind of model where people who can’t get into the shelter system or are ‘shelter weary,’ like they just can’t take it any longer, they will come in to a warming centre,” she said.
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Crowe said the city should guarantee three meals a day at these sites and offer informal health care through public health nurses or community agencies.
She also said transit should be free during cold alerts so people have a way to get to a safe indoor space. Though the city offers tokens at its various sites, most are clustered near the city’s core and people still need to get there and check in to get a token.
“It’s like a very clumsy system that is not taking into consideration not just the risk to life but the incredible physical health challenges of having to be outside during weather like this,” Crowe said.
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