HPAP Deputations to the City of Toronto Budget Committee: Part 2 – Dr. Sarah Griffiths

On January 10th, HPAP members Dr. Michaela Beder and Dr. Sarah Griffiths delivered deputations to the City of Toronto’s Budget Committee. Both are powerful calls for the city to take meaningful actions to improve living conditions for Toronto’s vulnerably-housed population in the context of the current shelter crisis and for more long term solutions.

We featured Dr. Beder’s manuscript in part 1 of our post (see below). For part 2 we have Dr. Griffths’ manuscript:

Dr. Griffiths’ Deputation to the City of Toronto Budget Committee

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak here before you today. My name is Dr. Sarah Griffiths, I am representing an organization called Health Care Providers Against Poverty and I work with people experiencing homelessness and poverty.

I am here to advocate for the creation of 1500 new shelter beds as well as the immediate improvement of the conditions within the city’s winter respite centers.  I know this has been a hot topic in the press with lots of advocacy and I would like to add to the discussion by presenting some findings of a recent survey we organized regarding the conditions in the warming shelters.

Toronto’s shelter system is in crisis. The city’s shelter programs have not kept pace with the growing number of people experiencing homelessness and shelters are at capacity. This winter, as many as 687 people a night were unable to access a shelter bed, and instead slept on mats on floors and in chairs in overcrowded winter respite centers and Out of the Cold programs.  When these winter programs close in the spring, shelters will remain at capacity, leaving many with nowhere to go.

As healthcare providers, we witness daily the impacts that homelessness and insufficient access to shelter has on our client’s health and we have becoming increasingly concerned about the conditions within winter respite programs and the drop-ins.

For two weeks this past December a group from our organization visited all 6 of Toronto’s winter respite centers as well as Toronto’s two 24-hour Women’s Drop-ins. At each of the sites, we spoke to service users and, staff, and we observed and recorded the facilities and conditions.

What we observed in was that none of the facilities met the City’s own Shelter Standards, nor the standards set by the United Nations Refugee Agency’s Handbook for Emergencies. We interviewed a total over 30 clients. Nearly all clients spoke at length about the detrimental health effects of these inadequate conditions.

The sleeping arrangement in all but one facility consists of mats on floors lined up in rows one next to the other, with no physical separation. Several facilities do not have a designated sleeping area but transform common spaces into sleeping areas at night and often have clients sleeping in empty chairs.  The Toronto City Shelter Standards mandate a “minimum of 3.5 m2 of personal space per client in sleeping areas to decrease the transmission of communicable diseases and conflict.”, yet clients are not provided with even this minimum. As one client insightfully remarked, “people get more and more violent as it gets more crowded.”

While the City’s standards state each client should be provided with a “a minimum of two sheets, one blanket, one pillow, one pillow case, and one towel.” none of the centers were able to meet this requirement.

Only one facility provided a secure place for clients to store belongings, and clients reported sleeping “with one eye open” due to fear of theft. Often, important belongings like identification and medication go missing. None of the facilities meets the City’s Shelter Standards of providing one toilet for every 15 clients. Of the eight facilities, just three have a single shower.

It is no wonder that in these conditions almost all clients reported poor or very poor quality sleep, with an average of just four hours of sleep per night. Overcrowding, poor privacy, poor sanitary conditions and poor sleeping conditions contribute to exhaustion, high levels of stress, violence and illness. I spoke to an elderly woman with severe arthritis, who recently lost her housing, was unable to find bed at a shelter and didn’t know how she would manage sleeping on a mat or on a chair. It’s impossible to not see how these conditions are going to negativity impact her health.

The drop-ins are a crucial service. They are staffed by workers and volunteers doing their best in an underfunded system but what we saw is that they are a grossly inadequate substitute for low barrier shelters.

In order to bring occupancy in shelters to under 90% and get clients in beds, we urge the city to open least 1500 beds in new facilities across the city and within the downtown core and to include beds that are low barrier, support harm reduction, are safe for Indigenous, racialized and LGBTQ people, and are able to accommodate couples, families, and pets.

We did our survey prior to the opening of the Regent Park warming center, moss park armory and better life center and we commend the city for this step and for the proposed opening of a site on George street. We are in the process of surveying these sites and we have heard that they are improvement but we need 1000 spaces in facilities like these that comply with city standards and they must stay open throughout the spring and summer until more shelter beds can be open.

We have compiled the detailed results of our survey as well as further recommendations in a report we are intending to release shortly. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.