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Toronto street nurse calls for the city to open the armoury for shelter space

Last Updated Dec 16, 2016 at 7:10 pm EST

It’s the third extreme-weather alert day in a row with a snow storm expected tonight. You may be cuddled into your blanket on your couch at home with a hot cup of cocoa in your hand, but thousands of others are not.

Shelters in Toronto were running at 97 percent capacity on Wednesday night, leaving many with no other place to turn.

“It’s totally unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” said street nurse Cathy Crowe. “For years we’ve been saying shelters are full.”

The City’s shelter system is running on empty, or at least with the gas light on.

“They really are full but this year we’ve lost even more beds so the Out of the cold program, the volunteer-run church program, is full,” she said.

Down 100 referral beds since the Strep A outbreak at the city’s largest shelter, the Seaton House, the 4410 remaining beds are in even greater demand.

Early this morning paramedics responded to a call in the Harbord Street and Lippincott Street area, where a man was found covered in snow with blue fingers. The City was under an extreme cold weather alert (-15C or colder) at the time, and the man was transported to hospital for cold-related injuries. It’s not clear if he tried to access shelter and was refused.

The City’s out-of-the-cold program, an emergency system where homeless people can find shelter, and often a meal is operating. The program is funded by the City and volunteer efforts and involves predominately churches and synagogues opening their basements to those in need. It’s a rotating system with different places of worship opening their doors on different nights. According to the city, on Wednesday 85 people used the system—its occupancy was only 68.

Yesterday, the City opened three drop-in warming centres.

The centres aren’t intended to be used for sleeping, but they certainly can be. Between the three capacities is set at 130 at any given time the idea is to simply get out of the cold.

Yesterday, Mayor Tory paid a visit to Margaret’s drop in centre and tweeted about it, saying “last night I visited the city’s Streets to Homes Referral Centre and Margaret’s Drop-In Shelter to hear from people directly.”

Crowe says these are a poor substitute.

“I recognize that the mayor needs emergency help from outside the city unless he can find an empty city building to use,” she said. “You ask the Red Cross to help, you ask Salvation Army or other, not-for-profits to run it, people who know how to do this.”