The city will discuss the option of using the Moss Park armoury as a new winter respite centre with the federal government as it expands capacity at another site to deal with an "unprecedented" homelessness crisis, Mayor John Tory said Wednesday.
Toronto currently operates six winter respite centres, but city staff have made it clear that more space is needed, Tory said at a morning news conference. He added that he will be speaking with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to gauge whether the Moss Park armoury will be an "appropriate" site for a seventh centre.
The armoury would provide up to 100 new spaces.
Tory has faced mounting criticism for his previous refusals to open the armouries as shelters run at near-capacity. He voted against exploring the use of the armouries in a motion presented to council on Dec. 6, 2017. In multiple interviews with different media, Tory has often pointed to expert advisors who he says have cautioned against using the armouries.
During a Dec. 5, 2017, interview with Metro Morning, Tory said it would open up a "number of issues" that include inadequate facilities and cost — though he repeatedly said cost was not his primary concern.
He's also been critical of advocates that have called into question his leadership on the issue.
"Why is it when it comes to opening the armouries are these one or two people to be taken as having the gospel," he asked, taking exception to the implication that "if I don't do exactly as they say… that somehow that this means that I'm not doing my job."
In addition to the Moss Park armoury, Tory announced this morning that the capacity at the newly opened, city-owned Better Living Centre will go from 110 daily spaces to 150 spaces and the implementation of 200 other new spaces across the city — part of an earlier commitment to make 400 additional beds available this winter — will be fast-tracked.
Tory said that the homelessness situation in Toronto has reached crisis levels mainly due to frigid winter temperatures, an influx of refugees and unmet "mental health challenges." Current demand is 30 per cent higher than at this time last year, Tory added.
"The system is absolutely under strain," he said.
The city's shelters can currently house some 5,783 people, though on many nights hundreds of people are left sleeping on mats or under tables.
The city ombudsman announced Tuesday she would be looking into why, on recent nights, some people were told certain shelters were full when they weren't — including at the Better Living Centre on the Exhibition grounds. Staff has called it a "miscommunication," but this morning Tory apologized, telling reporters the city "will do better."
Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam lauded the mayor's change of course on Twitter, but called on him to lend his political clout to help ensure that the next city budget earmarks funds to create some 1,000 new, permanent shelters spaces.
Environment Canada's forecast is showing more frigid temperatures ahead, including a high of –16 C on Friday.
It's been so dangerously cold for the past several weeks that on Dec. 30, 2017, two complete strangers — Jennifer Evans and Mohamad Fakih — paid for up to 20 people to spend the night in hotel rooms in safety. Fakih, a Toronto businessman, renewed his offer in the nights that followed.