On a quiet residential street just outside West Bend is a home that houses two refugee claimant families.
Several Romero House staff members, a transitional housing organization that helps refugees, also live in the small aging home. Together, they divide up household chores and relax inside their common room. These are not Syrian refugees who were assured housing for a period of time, but refugees from other parts of the world including Nigeria and Colombia.
Last fall, there wasn’t any relaxing in the common room – it was turned into a living space for a family of five. After the family found housing, the common room continued to be used as temporary lodgings for families and individuals.
“We have a family living with us now, that for about 10 days before had an apartment open up with us – they were 11 people in a one-bedroom apartment,” Hannah Deloughery, a housing worker at Romero House near Bloor and Dundas streets, told The Bloor West Villager. “There was a couple who came to us who slept in a park for a number of nights before going to another refugee shelter and they slept in our staff common room.”
Deloughery said in the fall dozens of refugees were looking for shelter almost daily, and with Romero House's three homes and one emergency shelter full, she and her colleagues began calling the City of Toronto’s central intake line to see if there were any spaces in other shelters.
“When we called the intake line, it was a waiting list,” she said. “You put your name down on the waiting list, and you called back every day to find out if space had opened up.”
Romero House’s scenario is common with other transitional homes in the city.
Adam House located near Bloor and Dufferin streets and which caters to refugee claimants, had to start using its basement as an emergency shelter in October and November of last year.
“We’re always at max capacity. Sometimes we’re a little bit over, but we’re usually operating at max capacity,” said Andrew Restrepo, program manager at Adam House. “We saw this struggle last fall (2015) but not to this degree.”
According to Restrepo, the high cost of homes and living in Toronto is a big factor why the shelter system is squeezed.
“There’s no increasing shelter space in the homeless sector and in the refugee claimant sector,” he said. “There’s a lot of people coming in and increasing numbers and there’s not enough space to take them.”
As of December, Restrepo and Deloughery said they haven’t been experiencing the same amount of refugees seeking shelter as they did in the previous months, but they are worried the system could fill up again.
Patricia Anderson, the manager of partnership, development and support at the City of Toronto's Shelter, Support and Housing division said a new temporary shelter opened on Dec. 21, providing 60 beds for women.
The shelter, which is located at Kennedy Road and Eglinton Avenue in Scarborough, is operated by Homes First on behalf of the city during winter.
The agency's CEO Patricia Mueller said the new temporary shelter will, “help the whole system.”
“I would hate to see anybody not get a bed on any given night,” she said. “That’s why we worked with the city as hard as we could so we could relieve pressure on the system for helping 60 more people.”
But, Mueller agrees with Restrepo’s point that the price of housing is putting too much pressure on the system.
“Our clients need deeply affordable housing,” she said. “That is what’s missing in the system.”
Throughout December, the Daily Shelter Census on the city’s website reported an average occupancy rate of more than 90 per cent. As of Jan. 8 – the system has been operating at an average of 94 per cent occupancy.
The city’s goal is to bring that down to 90 per cent.
“The 90 per cent is intended to build in a margin to insure that everybody who needs a shelter bed will in fact have access to one,” Anderson said. “The pressure is starting to lessen a little bit because of the addition of more beds in the shelter system.”
According to Anderson, 150 beds have been added in the motel sector, which is available to families. The city is expecting to open an additional 30 emergency shelter beds for men at the Christie Ossington Neighbourhood Centre near Bloor Street and Ossington Avenue.
Furthermore, the city will be operating 24-hour shelters throughout the winter.
“We’ve decided between Dec. 15 and Feb. 28, there will be two 24-hour cold weather drop-in services that will remain open regardless of whether there’s an alert in place or not,” Anderson said. “That period is the most dangerous.”