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City vows to improve safety in homeless shelters as report says violence on rise

Toronto officials are putting together a plan to increase safety in the city shelter system following a report that says violence toward shelter residents and workers has risen since 2011.

“Violence and service restrictions are serious issues in Toronto’s shelter system on which more action is needed,” the report says.

“Improving safety in the shelter system will be a challenging task that requires nuanced and balanced approaches.”

According to the report, entitled Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) Shelter Safety Study, interpersonal violence in the shelter system increased 283 per cent from 2011 to 2021, with 1,071 incidents reported in 2011 and 4,102 incidents reported in 2021.

Such violence is defined as physical assaults, verbal abuse, threats of death and harm and harassment of staff and residents. CAMH worked with Toronto Shelter and Support Services (TSSS) on the study.

The report says the rate of service restrictions, in which individuals are denied access to shelter services for a specific reason such as violating rules, increased 33 per cent from 2014 to 2021, but dropped 49 per cent from 2021 to 2023. The report says 17 residents had 522 service restrictions in 2021, which accounted for 6.5 per cent of all restrictions that year.

Overcrowding, the pandemic, winter, hopelessness and frustration among residents as well as shelter policies that limit privacy, control, and autonomy, poor staff communication and ineffective interventions all played a role, according to the report, which makes 22 recommendations.

‘Mutual trust’ key, advocate says

One advocate for unhoused people, however, says relationship building between staff and shelter residents needs to be a priority for any recommendations to work.

“What’s missing here, as a perspective, is the idea that really this is relationship work,” Diana Chan McNally, a community worker at All Saints Toronto, a church and community centre, told reporters at city hall.

“When we’re working with homeless people and we talk about providing all these integrated supports, if we don’t have trusting relationships with people, there’s no way that those interventions will actually work,” Chan McNally said.

“With shelters, oftentimes, you see staff who are sitting in a glass booth, they’re not actually out and engaging with the people who live there, there are no relationships that are being built. And if you don’t have that mutual trust, you will see a lack of safety in those spaces.”

Diana Chan McNally outside 129 Peter Street.
Diana Chan McNally, a community worker with All Saints Toronto, a church and community centre, says: ‘When we’re working with homeless people and we talk about providing all these integrated supports, if we don’t have trusting relationships with people, there’s no way that those interventions will actually work.’ (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

At a meeting of council’s economic and community development committee on Tuesday, city staff said the plan includes implementing a behavioural risk alert safety system to increase workplace safety for all shelter providers. The system, launching this year, increases information sharing across programs about residents with a history of violent behaviour, with the goal of supporting shelter staff in safety planning.

Many incidents occurred during pandemic: official

Gordon Tanner, general manager of TSSS, told reporters that the shelter system grew by more than 30 per cent since 2020, the start of the pandemic, and that growth had consequences.

“You have to look at the size of the shelter system over that time period. It has doubled and then doubled again since 2011. At the same time, during the height of the pandemic, we moved thousands of people around to new spots in new shelter places. And it was a huge upheaval for people,” Tanner said.

“The numbers that we’re seeing are important for us to understand and to address and to take action on.”

Tanner said other sectors, including health care settings, are seeing increases in violence against staff and residents. He said it’s important to remember that many of the incidents occurred during the height of the pandemic.

“What we have seen is shelter work today does not look like shelter work 10 or 15 years ago. Complex issues, such as the drug toxicity crisis, increasing poverty, the homelessness crisis, and frankly, unmet mental health needs across the city all collaborate to create a very complex situation for some of our most vulnerable residents.”

Gordon Tanner, who heads shelter and support services for the City of Toronto, joins Mayor Olivia Chow during a tour of Covenant House on Jan. 15, 2024.
Gordon Tanner, general manager of Toronto Shelter and Support Services, says: ‘Complex issues, such as the drug toxicity crisis, increasing poverty, the homelessness crisis, and frankly, unmet mental health needs across the city all collaborate to create a very complex situation for some of our most vulnerable residents.’ (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Dr. Nick Kerman, a scientific associate at CAMH and one of the authors of the report, told reporters that he hopes that report validates the concerns of shelter residents and workers.

“What I hope that this report does is provide clear evidence of what I think a lot of people knew or thought was happening in the context of the shelter system.”

Coun. Alejandra Bravo, who represent Ward 9, Davenport, says strained resources are contributing to the problem and it limits the city’s ability to help those most in need. 

Those most in need include the 17 shelter residents who need extensive and specialized support. The report found they were responsible for hundreds of incidents.

“It’s a small number of people that are in recurring crisis and that those people have need for additional supports and that those supports are not being met,” Bravo said.

A man stands in front of a homeless shelter.
An unhoused man walks outside the Maxwell Meighen Centre in Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The report also found that about 36 per cent of shelter staff feel very or somewhat unsafe in the workplace. Roughly 43 per cent of Black and Indigenous shelter staff reported experiencing daily verbal abuse involving racism.

Report says city needs to address ‘key needs’

The report said there are opportunities to make change by addressing “key needs,” such as using a prevention lens to strengthen the availability of mental health supports and ensuring continuity of support for service users through community partnerships. 

Its recommendations include implementing more intensive, team-based mental health supports in the shelter system, prioritizing the reduction of crowding in shelters and establishing more consistent service restriction processes and decisions within and between shelter organizations.

It also recommends that the city develop a specialized program to support people with extensive histories of violence and service restrictions.

Earlier this month, the city released data showing that the number of tents set up by unhoused people in encampments has more than doubled in Toronto in the past year. According to the city, people are taking shelters in parks that haven’t seen encampments before.

In the last three months, there were 10,833 “actively” homeless people in Toronto, according to city data. The number of people who used the city’s shelter system was 9,969 on April 29, while the average number of people unable to secure a shelter bed nightly was 178 in March.

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