Downtown Concerned Citizens Organization

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During the past five years, the number of emergency shelter beds in Toronto has more than doubled from 4,319 in 2016 to about 8,500 this winter.

And about 30% or more of these homeless beds are serving clients from outside Toronto, statistics show.

The 8,500 include more than 6,000 regular beds in shelters across the city, another 2,300 in new temporary shelters and COVID hotels, and other spaces that became available as part of the city’s winter plan.

The city’s shelter officials insist the capacity is the same at “about” 6,500 spaces — that the spaces in the new temporary shelters and hotels offset those beds shut down (temporarily) in regular shelters.

Still, the regular shelters are still there, costing money for upkeep even at reduced capacity.

In addition to temporary sites, starting in 2019, city shelter officials gradually started adding 1,000 new shelter beds at the behest of the mayor and council.

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Despite claims from city officials and politicians that the homeless really need permanent housing and shelters are just Band-Aids, the money spent on shelter spaces and the staff to maintain them keeps flowing.

Compared to 2016, the cost to house each homeless person in a shelter bed per night has increased 300% from $71.92 to the current average of $220 per night.

City officials have blamed COVID for the latest jump in costs — citing the extra security, hotel leases, meals, and the homeless operators needed because of physical distancing requirements.

The 2021 shelter, support and housing budget is $1.1-billion, a 77% increase from 2016 at $668-million.

The number of people working in the city’s shelter, support and housing administration (SSHA) has increased 46% from 757 staff in 2016 to 1,106 approved positions in the 2021 budget.

Homeless operators have flourished, too. Homes First Society executive director Patricia Mueller told me in a recent interview that in the last five to six years, they’ve “grown considerably.”

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It appears the homeless industry has become one with uncontrollable costs — operating in stark contrast to the horrors that have become front and centre in long-term care during the COVID crisis, where there weren’t enough staff to properly feed paying residents their meals or ensure they were hydrated.

The increase started in 2017 with an influx of refugees to Toronto — reaffirmed as a Sanctuary City by the mayor and council in late January 2017.

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By April 2018 — when the last Street Needs Assessment (SNA) was conducted — officials found that 40% of beds were being occupied by refugee claimants.

That SNA also reported that 52% of those counted had not lived in Toronto in the previous year.

Factoring out refugees, 30% of the homeless reported coming to Toronto in the 12 months prior to the count.

Some 14% said they’d come from another Ontario community, 9% from another province and 5% from another country.

The next SNA won’t be done until April, but I suspect those numbers will be even higher.

When COVID hit and the Canadian borders were closed, refugee claimants trickled to almost nothing.

But the homeless beds continued to get filled.

Mueller blames the “confluence of social events” which includes more small storefronts with apartments and rooming houses being converted into condos, plus the opioid crisis — which caused people to lose their homes.

Last year, shelter, support and housing general manager Mary-Anne Bedard reported that an increasing number of people were arriving in Toronto from agencies in the GTA as well as being sent directly from Pearson airport.

City spokesperson Lyne Kyle said last week that while 129 Peter St. is not open to walk-in referrals during COVID, they are aware of people who “continued to be referred” to Toronto shelters from outside the city.

She added that “anyone” can access the shelter system in Toronto.

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Who are the agencies operating temporary shelters?

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The same names keep popping up every time the city opens a new hotel or other temporary shelter.

Homes First Society. Dixon Hall. Fred Victor Centre. St. Felix Centre.

They’re all operators of the city’s respite or hotel shelters. In the case of hotels, they’ve replaced long-time service staff with their own employees.

According to city spokesperson Lyne Kyle, they were identified on the basis of their interest and their capacity.

In the case of hotels, long-time service staff have been uprooted and replaced with homeless agency employees. Only bare-bones hotel staff remain to clean rooms or to prepare food.

The biggest players appear to be Homes First and Dixon Hall.

Between them, they operate 10 respite shelters and hotels, most of them in the downtown area.

Although both are registered charities, according to the Canada Revenue agency website, a review of their latest financial information indicates they each subsist largely on government grants, mostly from the City of Toronto.

In addition to the Novotel hotel, Homes First operates the Better Living Centre, the Delta Toronto East, half of the Strathcona Hotel (shared with Dixon Hall) — in total three hotel shelters, a respite site, two warming centres and six regular shelters.

A refugee shelter at 5800 Yonge St. was temporarily “repurposed” into a shelter with 125 residents, says Homes First Society executive director Patricia Mueller.

She says they have had to increase staff “tremendously” with 465 now (some full-time, some part-time). She said they will have a total of 43 people working at the Novotel for the three shifts.

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Their 2019 statement of operations — filed with the Canada Revenue Agency’s charity site — shows that Homes First got $22 million from the City of Toronto. Donations from non-government sources accounted for $171,593.

Dixon Hall manages the Bond Hotel, half of the Strathcona Hotel and the Victoria Hotel as well as respite sites on George St. and Lakeshore Blvd.

Director of housing services David Reycraft said the number of beds they managed started increasing in the winter of 2017 when the city made the decision to open respite shelters.

“Since then we’ve seen this dramatic growth,” he said, noting that has caused a “dramatic pressure” on hiring in the last three years.

  1. A paramedic transports a patient to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, April 17, 2020.

    Ontario surpasses 300,000 COVID infections, allows vaccines for homeless

  2. An image of Novotel taken from the Silver Hotel Group website.

    LEVY: Novotel homeless hotel to cost $8.1 million over 10 months

  3. The Novatel Toronto Centre, on The Esplanade, is the latest hotel to be leased by the City of Toronto to house homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    LEVY: Angry Esplanade area residents get few answers about new COVID hotel shelter

They have 40 full-time staff at the Strathcona, Victoria and Bond Hotels.

For the fiscal year ending March 31, 2020, Dixon Hall received $12.1-million of its funding from the city; another $3-million from the province and $227,283 from the feds.

It collected $1.3-million in charitable donations.

SLevy@postmedia.com

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