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

The City of Toronto‘s ombudsman says her office is investigating “the recent confusion over the winter programs offered to the city’s homeless” after some people were told there was no shelter space available over the weekend.

“We are concerned about reports that some people were mistakenly told there wasn’t any space for them on Dec. 30,” ombudsman Susan Opler said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

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“Our inquiry will focus on the cold-weather needs of the City’s homeless, and whether the City is providing services in a way that ensures people’s dignity, safety and comfort.”

READ MORE: Space available at shelters overnight, City of Toronto says

In response to the ombudsman inquiry Tuesday, city staff say they’re reviewing how information is being conveyed to people in need by frontline staff.

“It is particularly important when individuals with specific requirements or needs cannot be immediately assisted that staff work with them to offer alternative service and to assist with transportation requirements,” a City of Toronto statement said.

News of the investigation comes after harm reduction workers from the Moss Park overdose prevention site recently voiced concerns about shelter bed capacity as bitter cold winter temperatures have created an elevated safety risk for those who are vulnerable.

The Toronto Overdose Prevention Society tweeted late Saturday that they were told warming centres and shelters were full. They said they were unsure where to send people once the Moss Park site was closed for the day.

“Warming centres full, BLC full, no shelter beds at central intake. So where are we to send folks in -22 weather?” the tweet said.

READ MORE: Toronto expands 24-hour warming centres for homeless during winter months

The city of Toronto released a statement Sunday that said its shelter system is responding to the frigid temperatures with “additional beds available, 24/7 street outreach and 24/7 low barrier respite drop-in services.”

The city has also opened The Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place to accommodate those in need. It has a capacity to serve 110 people and according to the city, it saw 71 on Saturday night. However, several community activists and organizations are pushing for the Canadian military’s armouries near Fort York and Moss Park to be opened as shelters. More than 35,000 people have signed an online petition to open the armouries.

Meanwhile, the ombudsman’s office said it’s monitoring staff’s progress in responding to a May report that called for improvements to be made for this winter season. There were three recommendations to come out of that report. Among the recommendations, the ombudsman called for city staff and drop-in centre operators to “determine a reasonable, healthy, dignified, safe and firm maximum capacity for each cold weather drop-in site, and formalize contingencies in place and protocols to be followed should those numbers be exceeded.”

*With files from Jessica Patton

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