Toronto to open 3 warming centres tonight; everyone accepted despite referral rumours: city

The City of Toronto will be opening three warming centres Thursday evening “out of an abundance of caution” as a winter storm hits the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

Located at Metro Hall at 55 John St., Scarborough Civic Centre at 150 Borough Dr., and Mitchell Field Community Centre at 89 Church Ave. in North York, the centres will open their doors at 7 p.m.

The downtown site can accommodate up to 45 people, while the one in Scarborough has 17 spaces. The third warming centre in Willowdale has room for 50 vulnerable individuals.

Typically, Toronto’s warming centres are activated when the city’s Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health declares an extreme cold weather alert based on a forecast from Environment Canada that is -15 C or colder, or when there’s a wind chill of -20 C or colder.

According to the city, anyone in need of a safe and warm indoor space is welcome to stop by one of its warming centres to rest, have a snack, use the washroom, and get a referral to emergency space in the city’s shelter system.

However, those working directly on the frontlines say the protocol for accessing a spot is unclear.

On Thursday morning, long-time community health worker Lorraine Lam contacted the city’s Central Intake line to confirm if the rumours she recently heard about people needing a referral to access a warming centre were true.

Lam, who works at Regent Park Community Health Centre, recorded a phone conversation with Central Intake where she was told community members had to go through that process to access a warming centre.

City spokesperson Erin Whitton said that directive is incorrect.

“Anyone can access a warming centre. They do not need to call Central Intake first,” she said.

“Some people may wish to do this to see if there is space at the warming centre or to learn more about its services or other programs supporting individuals experiencing homelessness, but it is not required.”

Lam said this unnecessary confusion will harm people experiencing homelessness.

“The city is saying people can just walk in. That’s definitely not the messaging those of us on the ground are getting,” she said, adding she’s concerned as the city doesn’t seem to have a concrete plan B in place for when the warming centres reach capacity.

“There’s just a lack of clear information.”

Whitton said anyone who arrives at a warming centre that is full will be offered a ride on a dedicated TTC shuttlebus to another location. That service will run until approximately 2 a.m., she noted.

The city said it is also “actively exploring” other possible warming centre locations, specifically in North York, this winter season. Negotiations are currently underway to open a fourth site at an undisclosed location.

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