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Mayor Tory says shelter system can accommodate homeless without opening armouries

Last Updated Dec 31, 2017 at 8:20 pm EDT

Toronto Mayor John Tory has responded to a growing online chorus that’s demanding the city open armouries to temporarily shelter the homeless during a stretch of bitter cold weather.

In a statement released just before 5 p.m. Sunday, Tory’s office said the city’s decision to open more than 100 new spaces at the Better Living Centre makes more sense than opening the armouries.

“Our expert staff continue to believe the Better Living Centre is a better option for a winter respite than the armouries,” Tory said. “The Better Living Centre can accommodate 110 people right now, it is open 24/7, and it is a city-owned site.  I continue to support our hard working shelter staff in deciding when and if extra capacity is required.”

Earlier this month city council also voted in favour of creating 400 additional spaces for vulnerable people.

But many took to Twitter to try and pressure the city into opening the armouries. The hashtag #openthearmouries is one of the top trending hashtags in Toronto.

While Tory said he appreciated the “advocacy and outpouring of emotion” from concerned citizens, he maintained that the city is equipped to handle the situation.

“City staff advise me that our shelter system continues to experience demand – shelter occupancy was at 95% last night which is consistent with other nights over the past month – but the system is coping with that demand,” Tory said. “I share the desire to make sure we are doing everything possible to help people who find themselves homeless in Toronto.”

“I want to thank City shelter staff and everyone who works across the shelter system for the work they have done dealing with the unprecedented demand we have seen over the last year. Their work is saving lives and will continue to save lives.”

Toronto is currently under an extreme cold warning, with temperatures expected to dip near -30 with the wind chill on Sunday night.

Toronto street nurse Cathy Crowe called the situation with Toronto’s shelter system a “catastrophe.”

“It’s pretty desperate,” she said. “Very crowded. People are in rough shape. Mostly people are sleeping on the floor… I’m actually sitting inside and I’m shaking with cold.”

On the phone from the temporary shelter at the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place, Coun. Joe Mihevc described a very different scene.

“The service is very good. The food is good,” said Mihevc. “I just talked to some of the clients here, and they are quite content here.”

Crowe says the location of the Better Living Centre, near the south end of the city, by Lake Ontario, makes it inaccessible for much of the downtown population.

There used to be street outreach vans to transport homeless people to shelters, but those systems were dismantled, she said. Instead, the TTC has said it is redirecting buses to stop outside the shelter.

Its relative isolation was compounded Saturday night, when due to what the city has characterized a “miscommunication,” prospective clients were turned away. People were told the shelter was full, when in fact only 71 of its 110 cots were in use.

Crowe is one of many asking the city to open its two armouries to provide additional relief in the cold weather.

“You’d have a large, spacious (building) that people trust, because it’s worked in the past,” she says. “It would be immediate relief so that people who are in overflow places such as the one I was just in could go in and there could be cots, hot food, blankets. It could be really operationalized as a good centre.”