Hundreds of people sheltering at a temporary winter respite centre on the grounds of Exhibition Place will soon have to find a new place to sleep, as the city begins winding down operations at the building.
The city said in a news release Tuesday that it will stop accepting new admissions to the Better Living Centre immediately and start working to transfer people to other spaces in the shelter system, hotels or permanent housing.
The centre will fully close by March 15 because Exhibition Place needs the facility for another booking, the city said.
Gord Tanner, general manager of shelter and support services, said he’s confident the city will be able to find alternative shelter for the 300 or so people living there, despite the shelter system being at full capacity.
“Everyone at the Better Living Centre will be offered an option to move to another location,” Tanner said in an interview.
“That’s our commitment and it’s something that we’ll be making sure it happens.”
Homeless advocates say the closure of the centre will place additional strain on the shelter system. They’re calling for more permanent housing options for people experiencing homelessness.
Finding alternative shelter
The Better Living Centre opened its doors in late December to help meet the high demand for shelter beds, particularly in anticipation of January temperatures dipping to extreme cold levels. The event space was originally meant to shelter 240 people, but the city said it’s been housing 300 at full capacity since December.
The centre’s opening was meant to supplement Toronto’s winter homelessness strategy, which was unveiled following a surge of thousands of asylum seekers and refugee claimants seeking emergency housing in city homeless shelters last year. Dozens were sleeping on the streets or being housed in churches last summer after being turned away from the at-capacity shelter system.
Around half of the people currently sleeping at the centre are refugee claimants, Tanner said. They, along with other refugee claimants, will be offered the option of moving to a hotel room in another Ontario city funded by the federal government.
“We’re thinking that there could be a great interest in moving to another community where … there will be seamless supports provided with the ultimate goal of connecting people with permanent housing,” Tanner said.
He said more than 2,000 people have been moved from Toronto shelters to hotels in places like Niagara Falls, Windsor or Mississauga since October.
“That will open up some space in our base shelter system to absorb some of the other individuals that are not refugee claimants,” Tanner said.
Some people staying at the centre will also have option of moving to a downtown warming centre at 75 Elizabeth St., which will transition to a 24-hour respite centre between mid-March and April 15. Tanner said there will be 60 spaces available there.
Tanner said some of the city’s smaller shelter programs will also start using bunk beds to increase their capacity. To date, he said the city has avoided the use of bunk beds in these programs as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases. But Tanner said he believes it’s safe to do so now due to the low prevalence of COVID-19 observed within city shelters so far this winter. The city estimates this could provide 90 to 100 additional beds.
Finally, any beds that open up within the main shelter system will be dedicated to people from the Better Living Centre, Tanner said.
Homeless advocates express concern
Relocating 300 people will be disruptive, said Diana Chan McNally, a community worker and homeless advocate. She said she is particularly concerned about the use of bunk beds because it can lead to cramped settings where the risk of violence and theft increases.
Even if the people staying at the Better Living Centre find alternative shelter that meets people’s needs, McNally said there are still many other people being turned away each night.
“I’m not entirely confident that this plan is going to shelter everybody as they need and certainly not necessarily in the kinds of situations that they would like or are used to,” McNally said. “Those people [who are] attempting to get a shelter bed will be in a worse situation potentially, or certainly no different, where they may not be able to access shelter as they need.”
Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker from the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, said she wants to see a stronger focus on permanent housing options for people experiencing homelessness
“How do we stop relying on these [temporary] leases and actually have some city spaces that can be more stable and secure?” she said.
“The winter plan was inadequate and a lot of folks have been worried about what happens after April 15th.”
Tanner said the city’s housing plan focuses on long-term solutions that provide people with permanent housing with supports. He said the city moved almost 6,000 people out of the shelter system and into permanent housing with supports last year.
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