Heavy rain hammers Toronto after city rejects 24/7 warming centres

Wet weather soaked Toronto on the heels of a city council vote to reject immediately opening 24/7 warming centres – a coincidence advocates say amplifies their argument for the opposite outcome.

“Where are people supposed to go?” Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker organizing with the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, said.

At the moment, the city opens their four warming centres at 7 p.m. when a cold weather alert is issued based on a forecast of -15 C or colder, or a wind chill of -20.

However, when a heavy rainfall hammers the city – like it did on Thursday – and showers the sidewalks with 25 mm of rain, warming centres do not open.

City council voted 15-11 on a board of health recommendation to keep warming centres open 24/7 until mid-April.

Toronto mayor John Tory said city staff will review current criteria at warming centres’ in an effort to maximize the days they serve those in need. Several times last winter, warming centres did open due to colder nighttime temperatures and forecasted wind chill values that spanned beyond the mainstream guidelines.

“The focus right now seems to be around winter, but at the end of the day, when the summer comes, we’re going to have this conversation about the need for cooling centres,” Lam said.

Diana Chan McNally, a community and crisis worker at All Saints in Toronto, said people have been asking her for public transit fare so they can travel to warming centres on Thursday’s rainy day.

“I have to tell them that the City of Toronto did not decide to open them, and unfortunately there’s nowhere to go after we close. They are asking me why, it’s wet and cold outside, and I have no answer,” she tweeted.

As a palliative care physician who provides health-care for people experiencing homelessness, Dr. Naheed Dosani said standing in the rain can “really amplify” existing health issues.

He said people are coming into health-care facilities to stay dry and warm. “Health-care is not necessarily the best place for this to happen,” Dosani said, pointing to the necessity of reserving resources, and dedicating well-equipped spaces.

Lam said she has seen others seeking shelter in libraries, coffee shops, and transit – places she said are not set up to be drop-in centres for people experiencing homelessness.

City council was advised that keeping warming centres open at all times would cost about $400,000 a month per centre.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said the plan “sounds good,” until you start asking “practical questions.”

“Well, can we staff these? I mean, can we literally find people to staff? Are the facilities where we have warming centres, like the rotunda at Metro Hall downtown, applicable or appropriate for 24 hour service, 24 hours a day all the time?” Tory told reporters on Wednesday.

In contrast, Lam pointed to the “very quick” approval of the Toronto police’s nearly $50-million budget increase, as proof there is funds available to the city.

“I think resources are there, I think the will is not there,” she said. 

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