Rebranding Toronto’s Homeless Shelters Masks Real Problem

Toronto Rebranding Homeless Shelters
Photo by Steve Knutson on Unsplash.

Early in 2018, the City of Toronto approved 1,000 new shelter beds. In order to promote this expansion of the shelter system, the City considered, amongst other things, the rebranding of homeless shelters.

That year, Toronto Storeys published an article entitled, How Should the City of Toronto Describe Homeless Shelters? It Wants Your Input. The article cited a survey conducted by the City asking for the public’s opinion on what sort of language should be used to describe homeless shelters.

READ: Toronto Home Depot Stores Need Your Help To End Youth Homelessness

The City suggested replacing the term, ‘homeless shelters’ with more positive terms like ‘Bridge Housing’, ‘First Step Housing’ and ‘Stopover Services’.  My question is, ‘bridges’, ‘first steps’ and ‘stopovers’ to where exactly?

As a former homeless person with “boots on the ground” experience, I’m arguably qualified to answer that question. But however you want to brand them, these shelters are not a step toward affordable housing, as virtually none exists in Toronto.

Homeless shelters in Toronto are public-private partnerships. So, while they receive most of their revenue from the public purse, there is little public scrutiny as to how these organizations operate and thereby spend tax dollars.

In my experience, the homeless demographic is mostly made up of low-income Torontonians who are in the shelter system not because of addiction or other antisocial behaviours, but simply because they can no longer afford to rent in Toronto.

As homeless shelter clients, they have few, if any, de facto rights. They can be discharged at a moment’s notice during the day or night in all types of weather (except when the City of Toronto issues Extreme Cold Alerts). Their lockers can be searched at any time, and they are under near-constant video surveillance.

READ: Gimme Shelter From The Shelter System: The Human Fallout Of Housing Insecurity

At my shelter, clients were only allowed to enter and exit via a prison-like checkpoint, where their bags and persons could be searched at random. If clients refused to allow staff to search their belongings, they were immediately discharged. The experience was far more like being in a prison or a detention centre than in a housing support organization.

In my experience, four to six clients were crammed into ten by ten-foot bedrooms. There were only five showers, urinals and toilets for seventy clients and that was on the best of days when there were no plumbing problems. Clients suffered from frequent bouts of influenza, chronic diarrhea and vomiting.

During the eleven months that I stayed in a homeless shelter, the housing success rate was less than ten percent and, of the four or five clients that did find housing, at least three quickly became homeless again and are now back in the shelter system.

That’s the reality that shelter clients face on a daily basis. Their only recourse to address grievances is through the Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA), the municipal agency that oversees the shelter system and whose very existence is directly dependent on it.

READ: The Four Catch 22’S Of Housing Insecurity For Low Income Torontonians

The appeal process is lengthy and, for the most part, pointless. Perhaps that’s why the City is asking the public how best to describe homeless shelters and not asking shelter clients themselves? In fact, the survey doesn’t even mention the SSHA. Why?

For most homeless shelter clients these days, there is no real hope for housing security in Toronto. The survey takes great pains to convince the public that homeless shelters should be renamed to contain the word, “housing”, but mentions no actual housing strategy.

Keep in mind that since 2009, the City of Toronto has been promising 1,000 new affordable housing units a year and has yet to deliver on even a fraction of that.

So, it seems that Toronto’s only solution to the scarcity of affordable housing is not to increase actual supply to meet the demand but to simply rename homeless shelters so that they’re somehow vaguely associated with housing.

READ: Who’s Really To Blame For Toronto’s Affordability Crisis?

Yep. Your hard-earned tax dollars at work, rebranding and thereby enabling more homelessness – all at the low, low price of $53,144/year per homeless person according to a study published by the Homeless Hub. By the way, that same study puts the annual cost of affordable housing at $5,000-8,000/year.

So, here’s an idea: if we are going to rename homeless shelters, let’s call them, “Taxpayer-Funded Detention Centres for Low-Income Torontonians”. Why? Because without any real plan to address Toronto’s affordable housing crisis, that’s all Toronto’s homeless shelters are or ever will be.

Now, City of Toronto. Rebrand that!

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