A Toronto street pastor is accusing city staff of giving out inaccurate information about the number of beds available daily in its homeless shelters — saying the system often has no capacity even when the city says beds are available.
Doug Johnson Hatlem, who works with the Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, is speaking out after a video was shot of him calling the city’s central intake desk on Nov. 1 and being told there were no spaces available was released. At the same time, a daily snapshot of the shelter system published on the city’s website said there were hundreds of vacant beds, with a 30 per cent vacancy rate.
“This is an ongoing problem and it starts with the city bureaucrats admitting the truth that there simply aren’t spaces for all those who don’t have housing,” Hatlem told CBC Toronto Thursday.
The snapshot the city publishes every day includes data about occupancy, vacancy, and capacity in the shelter system. It’s supposed to act as a lifeline for the thousands of people who need shelter across the city — a number that has grown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and with the approach of colder weather.
Hatlem, who is also an advocate for affordable housing, has exposed discrepancies in the city’s shelter capacity in the past and continues to push for more support for those who are experiencing homelessness.
Documentary filmmaker Jason Cipparrone had asked Hatlem to capture the call on video as part of a full length documentary to be released next year. He said he did not intend on releasing it before the film but thought it was too important to wait.
He said this is not a one-time occurrence and that he has faced the discrepancy time after time when he calls the hotline for individuals and is told to call back each time. He said the shelter system, contrary to what the daily snapshot indicates, is operating at capacity all the time, and that makes it a dangerous place for people experiencing homelessness, even without a pandemic.
“You end up with fights; you end up with poor health; you end up with bedbugs; you end up with disease,” he said. “And these things all happened before the coronavirus.”
Shelter system is ‘dynamic,’ city says
In response to Hatlem’s video, city spokesperson Lyne Kyle told CBC Toronto that the city’s intake process is constantly changing throughout the day, which can cause discrepancies like the ones Hatlem describes.
Kyle said space in the city’s shelter system is “dynamic” and changes as people enter and leave the system, also noting that the occupancy data is based on a snapshot that is taken as of 4:00 a.m.
“It is possible for individuals to call Central Intake and be told there are no available beds and to call back later,” Kyle said.
She also called the 30-per-cent vacancy figure in Hatlam’s video “inaccurate.”
“They arrived at this stat using information provided through the City’s Open Data portal, which is based on a breakdown of space by location prior to COVID-19,” Kyle said.
“The page where the dataset is located has an alert that explains that we are working to make improvements to the dataset, but meanwhile [we] advise users not to rely on this data to interpret current bed availability.”
Toronto has the largest shelter system in Canada, providing space for more than 6,000 individuals each night, according to the city.
“While space in the base shelter system has decreased, this has been offset by an increase in space in new temporary sites,” Kyle noted.
The system has 75 shelters and 24-hour respite sites.
Kyle said the city also plans to add an additional 560 beds with colder weather quickly approaching.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 40 temporary facilities were also created to provide spaces for people to move indoors from encampments. The city said 25 of the 40 are currently operating.
But Hatlem is calling on the city to do more to ensure beds are available nightly.
“The shift needs to be to real housing, but even in the current circumstances the city should start with honesty,” Hatlem said.
“That’s the first request: the city needs to be honest they don’t have enough spaces to shelter everybody who’s homeless in Toronto.”