Shelters running out of space: Warning sounded as winter looms
By Robert Matas and Margaret Philp, The Globe and Mail, Thursday 23 October 1997
Emergency shelters across Canada are bracing for the chilly blast of winter and realizing that they do not have enough space to accommodate the hundreds of people now living on the streets.
Workers at shelters in Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver warned yesterday in interviews that a national crisis is in the making. Even before winter begins, the shelters are struggling to find space for everyone who appears on their doorsteps. And they are concerned about what they will do as the weather gets colder.
"I'd like to wave a magic wand," said Major Margaret Newbury, director of Booth Centre, a Salvation Army shelter in Calgary. "We need another building or more low-cost housing immediately."
Douglas Peat, executive director of Dunsmuir House in Vancouver, said the lack of services for the homeless "has finally caught up with us. There's no place for the homeless to stay."
Community workers from several downtown agencies in Calgary are to meet today with provincial and municipal officials to see what accommodations can be made available. Meanwhile in Vancouver, the provincial government, under pressure from community agencies, is looking at the feasibility of converting an old remand centre into a shelter.
Statistics on the number of homeless are incomplete. A count in Vancouver was unsuccessful. One official estimated that Vancouver has about 600 street people. However, the provincial government provides funds for beds for fewer than half of them.
About 5,350 homeless people now sleep in Toronto's shelters each night, a jump from the 3,970 people the system served last year, and the city is bracing for more.
In a recent report that called the growing problem a "crisis," Metro Toronto's hostel division predicted its shelter population would hit 6,560 by Christmas, a 67-per-cent increase from last December.
"I'm confident we'll make it through the winter, but we're really scrambling to get it together," said John Jagt, director of Metro Toronto's hostel division.
"This is really crazy. We have to struggle to make sure people have a roof over their head."
The increase is attributed to the economy, tighter welfare rules and other shifts in government policies. Many people living on the street were previously in mental institutions, especially in Vancouver. Others simply cannot afford places to live.
Street workers also report an increasing number of young people and, in Vancouver, drug addicts who are unable to care for themselves.
Calgary has an acute housing shortage, Major Newbury said. The Salvation Army has two shelters for homeless people and both are "full or overflowing."
The Booth Centre in downtown Calgary currently has 72 people sleeping on the floor on mats every night in addition to 183 in beds. Last year, the Booth Centre had only 22 people on the floor. All the agencies in the city face the same predicament, Major Newbury said.
Calgary has already had some snow and the temperature, with the windchill, fell to -18. But that did not bring everybody in. "Some only come to the shelter when they get really desperately cold and we have not reached that point yet," she said.
Major Newbury is hoping that the meeting today, which is a follow-up to previous consultations, will finally address the issue.
In Vancouver, those who work with the homeless noticed the increase in street people during the summer. Previously, the number of people using shelters on the West Coast dropped when the weather improved, but this year several shelters were close to capacity during the warmer months, leaving officials worried about what will happen when it turns cold.
Government officials, though, are more confident about their capacity to respond to the need. Judy Graves, co-ordinator of the tenant-assistance program for Vancouver, said the city is prepared to handle a cold snap. Arrangements have been made for the floor of a chapel to be used.
Marisa Adair, spokeswoman for the B.C. Ministry of Human Resources, said spaces are often available outside the downtown area. The problem is co-ordination, not the lack of facilities, she added. "We can respond quickly to the needs."
In Ontario, the unexpected flood of homeless people in Toronto -- where Mr. Jagt estimates about half of Canada's homeless population lives -- has left Metro officials scouring the city for unconventional places to accommodate them.
In the past few weeks, they have asked local municipalities to find empty public buildings that could be converted into temporary shelters, contingency planning normally reserved for natural disasters.
Metro Councillor Jack Layton proposed transforming the cafeteria at Metro's downtown Toronto headquarters, Metro Hall, into a homeless shelter. Hostel officials, meanwhile, have tracked down a few potential sites, including a vacant sports arena in the city.
At Seaton House, a sprawling men's shelter that can sleep more than 600, the corridors are crowded at night with the overflow of men sleeping on mattresses. With hundreds of tired, grubby, sometimes drug-addicted and mentally ill men sleeping cheek by jowl, the hostel has witnessed an unprecedented level of stabbings and other violent incidents over the past two months.
"The thing for me that's the most concerning is I sense a growing alienation out there," Mr. Jagt said. "I think that's a new dimension to the problem that's very, very scary."
But single men are only part of the problem. With shelters for women and children full, two-thirds of Toronto's homeless families are crammed into cut-rate motels located along a strip in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. For the first time ever, family shelters faced the prospect of turning away homeless mothers and children after a wave of Gypsies from the Czech Republic flooded into the hostels and filled the few remaining beds.
Metro's hostel division has taken the unusual step of signing contracts with motel owners in towns outside Toronto. In a few cases, they have found apartments for homeless families in communities not suffering from the dire shortage of cheap apartments that bedevils Toronto.
At the same time, the Out of the Cold program, an church-basement shelter system run for the past decade by several Toronto churches and synagogues, has raised its capacity this year to 203 beds from 126 last year. In Montreal, the system of shelters that house homeless people are mostly run by the voluntary sector.
Adrian Bercovici is the executive director of the Old Brewery Mission, Montreal's largest homeless shelter and soup kitchen. It sleeps 400 people a night and feeds more than 1,000 people every day.
Mr. Bercovici has observed a sharp rise in the number of homeless men and women the shelter serves, although nowhere near the levels cramming into Toronto hostels.
Since 1995, the homeless population at the Old Brewery Mission has jumped 20 per cent, to 3,020 people served in the year ended last March. Mr. Bercovici said that two years ago, the shelter opened its doors to 1,215 people considered new to homelessness. In 1997, it served 1,321 newcomers.
While the Old Brewery Mission is not quite full, he said there are nights when men sleep on cafeteria chairs with their head plunked on the tables, and women are put up in nearby motels.
"This year, we've already had people several nights sleeping in the cafeteria, even during the summer," he said. "I don't even know where these people are coming from."