https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/08/10/number-of-people-turned-away-from-homeless-shelters-has-soared-this-year-data-shows.html

The average number of people turned away each day from Toronto’s homeless shelters was roughly 10 times as high in June as it was a year earlier, new city statistics show.

The figures for the shelter system’s central intake, a 24-7 city-run hotline that offers referrals to emergency accommodation and information on other homelessness services, show an average of 100 callers per day weren’t matched with a bed by 4 a.m. in June. That was the highest average in any month since the city began logging calls in November 2020. The intake has received more than 220,000 calls in that time.

Between June and August 2021, fewer than nine callers a day on average went unmatched, according to the data.

The new statistics bolster long-held concern among advocates about the availability of shelter space in Toronto and come after the system faced renewed scrutiny during the pandemic as homeless encampments in public parks made the issue more visible.

Outreach volunteer Dale Burshtein said she called 311 to reach the intake line three times last Thursday and spent much of the afternoon on hold, trying to get a woman out of the rain.

The woman had struggled with episodic homelessness since at least last winter, Burshtein said. She didn’t have a cellphone, and when Burshtein crossed paths with her this time she had been unsheltered for days.

But Burshtein’s subsequent calls to central intake proved fruitless, with staff repeatedly telling her there weren’t any suitable beds available.

“Their advice is brutal: call us back, call us back every hour,” she said.

In addition to the number of people going unmatched with beds, the data includes other indications the shelter system is under mounting strain. Overall, more calls seeking shelter are coming in, with more than 550 calls per day on average in June 2022, compared with fewer than 390 calls received on the average day recorded in November 2020.

Between June 2021 and the same month this year, the average number of repeat callers to central intake within the same day who weren’t matched with a bed skyrocketed, from about two last June to almost 50 this June.

Not every call outcome was recorded in the data, which the city attributes to technical challenges and staff still learning the tracking system.

One woman who sought shelter in Toronto last month — whom the Star is not naming due to her fear that speaking publicly about struggles with homelessness could affect her job search — said she had called central intake as many as six times in a day searching for a space.

She had previously stayed in one of the city’s shelter hotels but said she left to attend a rehab program. It was a decision she hoped could turn her life around. But once that program finished, she struggled to find a place to stay.

“I’m frustrated,” she said.

The last day an outreach worker helped her call in search of shelter, they were on hold for more than half an hour before being told to call back again later. She feels lucky to have a few people to stay with temporarily instead. “You have to be patient. The system is what it is.”

City spokesperson Erin Whitton acknowledged that the numbers show the system is facing “significant demand” — noting that roughly 8,000 people per night were staying in Toronto shelters nowadays, which is about 2,000 more than in April last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis and a “critical lack of supportive and affordable housing” have all contributed to greater need, Whitton wrote in an email. Additionally, starting in September of last year, she said the city saw a “significant increase” in refugees and refugee claimants relying on Toronto’s shelter services after border restrictions eased.

Whitton said that when callers can’t be immediately matched with a bed, intake caseworkers will encourage them to call back, and can also ask for a phone number where the caller can be reached.

That can be a major barrier, sector workers and homeless Torontonians say. Alois Miller, who has struggled with homelessness for years, said while staying outside in 2020 he had to use a pay phone at a TTC station to contact intake staff. To find an adequate space took him months, he said.

“I get depressed, and I literally hit a point where I’m fed up with dealing with it, and why should I keep calling?”

Whitton noted the city has its own outreach team, Streets to Homes, in addition to the central intake phone line as a means of providing people referrals to shelter spaces or other supports.  

To keep up with growing demand over the last five years, Whitton said the city has been adding new shelter capacity.

The city is in the throes of a plan to gradually close the 27 temporary shelters opened during the pandemic, most in hotels and motels. While staff say their goal is to keep the same capacity despite the closures, the proposal raised alarm among some shelter occupants and advocates about where people will ultimately end up.

Whitton noted that while shelters can provide temporary lodging, tackling homelessness requires permanent housing units with adequate supports. Between January and June, city data shows 1,827 people moved from Toronto shelters to permanent housing, comparable to the 1,783 people moved from shelters to permanent housing in the same period of time last year.

However, there were 9,700 people considered actively homeless in Toronto in the past three months, according to a separate city database, a marked increase from around 7,500 in spring 2021.

As more and more callers are turned away, Kim Curry — executive director of the Seeds of Hope Foundation, which operates a drop-in centre downtown — said she’s watched people grow frustrated with the shelter intake process, and even give up on calling altogether.

“It’s like once in a blue moon you can get someone in,” Curry said. “(People) will sit with us for hours, and they have no phones, and (staff) just keep saying call back in an hour.”

While she’d seen some success stories, Curry says the system had become visibly more strained over the last year. “Everything has become worse,” she said.

Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Reach her via email: victoriagibson@thestar.ca

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr