By Nina Kalirai
People can become homeless for many reasons, often times leaving them without a source of income, food or shelter. The City of Toronto has provided multiple resources for these individuals, such as homeless shelters, for years.
In the interview VIBE TALKS Correspondent Nina Kalirai discusses with Gord Tanner - Director of Homeless Initiatives and Prevention Services with the City of Toronto, his role within the city and how the city helps the homeless. This includes not only those who live on the streets, but also on university campuses. We also discuss the city’s expansion of temporary homeless shelters across Toronto, where Gord explains to those who are against the expansion of these shelters why it’s not a bad thing.
Nina: Tell me a little bit about your role with the city.
Gord: I work with the shelter support and housing division at the city of Toronto. My title as director of Homelessness initiatives and prevention services includes: the responsibility for our directly operated shelters, our street outreach programs, as well as co-ordinating the shelter services across the city of Toronto.
Nina: Homelessness is also an issue on many university campuses, such as York University, University of Toronto and Ryerson University. In terms of that, does the city have any initiatives to address that particular issue?
Gord: In terms of the university campuses, we have street outreach programs operated by our Streets to Home program that really spans out in every geographical part of the city. We don’t have any particular initiatives on the university campuses, but if at any time there was somebody who was homeless, and perhaps living outside one of those campuses, our street outreach teams could be connected by calling 311 and the teams would respond and connect with the individual to offer an array of services and immediate support.
Nina: Is that just for the homeless that are living on the outside of campus, or would that be the same for the homeless who actually live inside the buildings on campus?
Gord: It could be either. If somebody is sleeping outside, absolutely homeless, and in a tent or something outside then certainly our teams could connect with them. But also, if somebody was inside the university, using maybe a library program or something like that and they needed support, our outreach team could still be dispatched to come and connect with them.
Nina: In terms of the safety of students on these campuses, is there anything more that the city can do to service these homeless individuals off of the university campuses?
Gord: In terms of safety, people who are experiencing homelessness don’t pose a safety issue to the general public. For the most part, we work with people who are down on their luck and maybe have an economic issue. They may be homeless because of a family dispute or a break down of the family. Or they could have a mental health issue, or a substance issue that has meant that they no longer have housing. With respect to the safety piece, certainly the staff of our outreach programs do connect with security detaches, whether it’s at university campuses or at the Eaton Centre or different places like that. We often work with security firms throughout the city, but there’s no particular issue with safety I would say with respect to this issue on campuses.
Nina: Does the city have many homeless shelters outside of the downtown core?
Gord: We do! We have homeless shelters right throughout the city of Toronto and in every old part of the city, including Etobicoke, Scarborough, East York, North York and York. Certainly there’s a concentration of services for people who experience homelessness in the downtown core, but we have programs in every location of the city. It’s our goal to be opening up more shelters and services outside of the downtown core, because we know that people who experience homelessness are from all communities across Toronto. And the goal is to try and keep people closely tied to the communities in which they come from. They don’t have to come downtown to access services.
Nina: It has recently become a bigger discussion that there will be a temporary homeless shelter opening up in Don Mills. Why was that area chosen to open that temporary homeless shelter?
Gord: In the city of Toronto we’ve experienced an unprecedented number of people who are homeless in the city. Just over the last 18 months we’ve added almost 2000 shelter beds to the system, and in this past winter, in addition to the shelter beds we operated, we also opened up 24hr respite centres. At one point during the winter we had upwards of 8 of them operating. They served as another safe warm place, where people could come inside and be safe from the outdoor elements. City council asked us to extend those services beyond the end of our winter season, which was April 15th, and so we’ve done that. Unfortunately, two of the programs needed to relocate, and so we had two options. The first option was that we could’ve relocated those programs into community centres that are well used by the broader community, and that would’ve had the impact of disrupting programming and really affecting those communities. The second option that we found was that there were two arenas in the city where there were no programs happening during the summertime, and those were Lambton Arena and the Don Mills Civitan Arena. Both locations, when the ice comes out, the buildings are not utilized during the summer period, so we utilize both of those programs. We’ve moved into Lambton arena already, and on May 22nd we’ll be moving to the Don Mills Civitan. We’ll be utilizing that city asset which is not needed for any other purpose during the summer. We’re there for just a temporary period of time until towards the end of the summer, when we will be relocating that service again.
Nina: Obviously there’s the people who think the shelter is a great idea, and then there’s the people who think it’s not so much of a great idea. What do you say to those people who don’t necessarily want that shelter in the area of Don Mills?
Gord: We’ve been expanding the shelter system for some time now, and whenever we go into a new community that has not had a homeless shelter or homeless services in the community before, we do have some in depth conversations with people who have a number of questions about how the service will affect the local neighbourhoods. The issue that’s happening within the community of Don Mills is no different than any other. Certainly, there is, as you mentioned, quite an overwhelming outpour of support for the service to be there, and people e-mailing and calling us to see how they can volunteer and to be there with assistance and support. At the same time, there are people that have questions and they’ve got questions about why we would choose that location, as well as questions about who will be using the service, and how the service will be managed. We’re quite open to answering those questions, and engaging in that dialogue with people wherever they are in the city.
Nina: Obviously, the city does provide plenty of shelters for the homeless to use, but what about in terms of resources such as resume workshops or rehabilitation centres for those who maybe have a drug addiction or anything like that. Is there anything that the City of Toronto provides for the homeless in that sense?
Gord: In amongst the 63 shelter sites that I talked about, there’s a variety of different programs. Some would support families for instance, some would support youth under the age of 21 primarily, others work with single adults and some work with couples. In the last couple of years, we’ve just supported two new LGBTQ2S youth shelters for young people who are queer and looking for a distinct program to meet their unique needs. We also have programs for seniors. We also have programs as you mentioned, such as resume workshops. We do have a very focused employment program, that we run at Fort York Residence for men who are close to the labour market but have been out of it for a while, and want to get back to work. In the instance of rehab or treatment programs for people who may use substances, certainly that’s more of a health funded support provided by the province through their healthcare partners. But we do have a few shelters in the city that are more abstinence based, and provide a place for people who are not using substances when they’ve gotten out of treatment, or before they go into treatment to address those issues. There’s a very diverse group of programs that exist, again operated by the city and our community partners across the 63 sites that I mentioned.
Nina: Where can listeners go for more information on the city’s initiatives?
Gord: People can go to our website. That’s the shelter support and housing website where you’d find links to a homeless help app, to give you real time information on the city’s services for people experiencing homelessness, as well as an array of other information on issues such as affordable housing and other programs.