Out in the cold
City Hall Watcher #160: City Council's first meeting of the year features police reform, moths, golf, and Metrolinx. Plus, a look at the shelter system.
In today’s issue of City Hall Watcher, I actually talked to real live people about the dire state of the shelter system—and then decompressed with several hours of making giant computer-melting spreadsheets.
And this Wednesday, City Council convenes for its first meeting of the year—both Gregorian and lunisolar. Is there any better way to kick off the Year of the Tiger? I don’t think so. Read on for my picks from the agenda—including golf, moths, police reform, and an Integrity Commissioner investigation.
➡️ Gmail readers: this issue may get clipped in your web client. To see the whole thing, make sure you read it on the Substack website.
— Neville Park
🎇 🎆 🎇 This milestone 160th issue of City Hall Watcher also marks the third anniversary of this newsletter. To celebrate, it’s being delivered without the usual paywall. But if you dig it, and you want timely, in-depth independent journalism like this in your inbox each and every week, you can subscribe for just five bucks a month or fifty bucks a year, plus HST — it’s a bargain and a deal. — Matt Elliott
That’s how many people braved COVID exposure for a spot in a shelter last night. But if the shelter system is this full, how many people are getting left out in the cold?
It’s that time of the year again: extreme cold weather alerts, jam-packed shelters, and activists’ and advocates’ desperate pleas for emergency measures. Oh, and there’s a pandemic on. What is SSHA (Shelter, Support & Housing Administration) doing about it? And why does this happen every freaking year?
According to SSHA staff I spoke with, everyone is actively screened for COVID symptoms on entry, and people staying in shelters are monitored at least once a day. However, if there isn’t room at the isolation and recovery site, people with COVID stay at the shelter; and in extreme cold, shelters with ongoing outbreaks will still admit new people.
What about when there’s no room at all? According to SSHA, people simply have to keep calling Central Intake—or the folks at Central Intake can call them back. This flummoxed housing advocates and shelter residents I spoke with. “I’ve never heard of that happening,” said Brian Cleary of Encampment Support Network Parkdale. Jennifer Jewell, who currently stays in a shelter hotel and has tried unsuccessfully to help friends get space, points out it’s unrealistic anyway: “It’s like, ‘Hey, this is Central Intake, I realize you’re homeless and you don’t actually have a phone and it’s -30° and we’re asking you to come out of the only warm safe space you have to sleep outside right now, to come and try to call us on the hour, every hour.’ It’s ridiculous.”
How many people call Central Intake and get turned away? How many people are offered a bed but have to turn it down because it’s too far away, inaccessible, or otherwise unsuitable? I was very curious about this.
SSHA does track this, but the data isn’t public. Fact Check Toronto had to file a Freedom of Information request, which is where this officially goes from “Open Data Challenge” to “Closed Data Challenge” to “Above My Pay Grade”. In January 2021, on average 46 callers a day could not find a bed by 4 a.m. And from November 2020 to February 2021, on average 19 callers a day were offered a bed but turned it down. Not to mention all the people who hung up before getting someone on the line—or never bothered calling at all.
It’s notoriously difficult [PDF] to estimate how many people are homeless. In lieu of better numbers, I combined SSHA’s 2021 daily shelter occupancy statistics with its shelter flow data (which Matt Elliott analyzed back in City Hall Watcher #125). SSHA defines “actively homeless” as “people who have used the shelter system at least one time in the past three months and did not move to permanent housing”, and “shelter service users” is simply the count of everyone in the shelter system on the last day of each month. The gap between them ranges from 1,500 (May 2021) to 2,064 (September 2021). As of December 2021, it was 1,975. (Check out the interactive version for all the data points.)
This is not definitive, obviously. But I do think it’s a reasonable figure, because it is pretty close to the Shelter & Housing Justice Network’s demand for 2,250 new, permanent shelter beds (edit: see footnote for their methods).1 That would put a roof over everyone’s head with a little room to spare. Yes, it’s just a band-aid—the real solution would be ending homelessness by creating deeply affordable, accessible, and supportive housing. But it sure beats acting surprised every year when it is winter in Canada again.
The week at Toronto City Hall: City Council debates police reform, EV charging, golf, and more
MONDAY: 👉 The Civic Appointments Committee appoints new public members to the Legacy Fund Allocations Committee and the Heritage Toronto Board of Directors.
🏚️ The Toronto & East York Property Standards Panel decides on the 2022 meeting schedule.
🏟 And, of course, Toronto City Council.
EX29.1, EX29.2: SafeTO, the public safety strategy Glyn Bowerman covered in last week’s issue, now comes to Council. The plan includes four Community Crisis Support Service pilot projects: non-police-led coalitions of community organizations that will respond to people experiencing mental health crises. These projects will launch later this year; you can read a little more what they’ll do and who’s involved in this report [PDF].
MM39.6: In the context of a public reckoning with police, prisons, anti-Black racism, and the legacy of colonialism, communities targeted by antisemitic and anti-Asian hate crimes face a profound moral challenge. Do we respond by doubling down on policing and enforcing hate crime laws, at the cost of making a great many people less safe? Or can we envision a kind of justice that doesn’t depend on white supremacy? Anyway, this member motion from Councillors James Pasternak and Cynthia Lai doesn’t address any of that.
IE27.8: As part of the Vision Zero Speed Management Strategy, Council may vote to get 25 more speed cameras, expand the areas where they can be installed, and co-ordinate with other municipalities, including ones in Québec, to charge speeding drivers caught on camera. (While this item is mostly about arterial roads, the staff report mentions this 2020 paper from folks at Sick Kids about the effect of reducing local road speed limits to 30 km/h within the old City of Toronto. It’s an interesting read—open access, too.)
IE27.7: Results are back from the City’s Downtown and Residential Electric Vehicle Charging Station pilot project. Some problems with the on-street charging stations: users staying beyond the one-hour time limit because it isn’t enough to fully charge their cars, and non-electric vehicles parking in the reserved spots. Altogether, drivers racked up over $20,000 in fines, with $18,000 coming from two stations—91 Elizabeth St. (often occupied by non-electric vehicles) and the very popular 10 Palmerston Ave. Transportation Services and Toronto Hydro want to extend the pilot projects for eight months, as the pandemic has thrown off normal traffic patterns.
IE27.3: If you have strong feelings about the procurement process for large government infrastructure projects and the Design-Bid-Build model vs. Design-Build, this Gardiner Expressway-related item is for you.
The great outdoors
IE27.4: Once again the Lymantria dispar dispar moth population has reached “outbreak level” in parts of Toronto, and the City must hire a helicopter company to carry out an aerial spraying program. This item is quite timely, as the Entomological Society of America has just announced a new common name for L. dispar dispar: “spongy moth”. It’s the English version of the French name spongieuse, and refers to the sponge-like appearance of their woolly-looking egg masses.
EX29.3: Metrolinx’s planned expansion of the Lake Shore East rail corridor will run through an East End ravine, and the locals aren’t happy. Local Councillors Paula Fletcher and Brad Bradford are duly asking Council to ask Metrolinx if they would please be nice about it, which is honestly the most that can realistically be hoped for. (See also Nicholas Hune-Brown’s recent Toronto Life piece on opposition to Ontario Line construction.)
Housing & development
PH30.3: As you know, Bob, according to provincial regulations, inclusionary zoning can only be implemented in specific areas around transit stations, called Protected Major Transit Station Areas, or PMTSAs. (Need a refresher? See Matt Elliott’s explanation in City Hall Watcher #146.) City Planning has now drawn up boundaries and drafted land-use policies for sixteen downtown PMTSAs, covering pretty much the Line 1 “U” from Bloor down. (They also have a neat site where you can explore all the MTSAs.) The next step is sending it all off to the Province for approval.
PH30.8: The next stage of the Alexandra Park revitalization will see four new TCHC-owned affordable rental units at 130 Augusta Ave. and 6 affordable ownership units, developed by Habitat for Humanity, at 116 Denison Ave.
PH30.2: So, garden suites. They’re kind of like laneway suites, but not on a laneway. Much like laneway suites, they are not a serious solution to a housing shortage, but it’s nice they’ll be allowed, I guess.
EX29.8: Councillor Mike Colle’s call for a land speculation tax is back before Council again. He says real estate speculators “treat housing like a Bitcoin-type commodity.” Is he wrong? No. Is this going anywhere? Also no.
EX29.5: The redevelopment of Ontario Place continues apace, whatever’s happening there. The staff report reassures us that everything has to be up to the City’s standards, in accordance with the Official Plan, etc., and that City-owned public areas will remain public (even if the Province ends up buying some of them).
CC39.1: Did Councillor Mark Grimes overstep in his attempt to throw the book at Adamson Barbecue over a year ago?
As you might recall, in November 2020 an Etobicoke restaurant defied the provincial ban on indoor dining. After a predictable fracas, the owner was arrested and Toronto Public Health shut down the restaurant. It was later discovered the Leaside location was operating without a license, and eventually the whole chain closed.
Anyway, Grimes did some blustering to the media. A member of the public complained he was improperly directing enforcement, which might reasonably be inferred from statements like “we will be closing it down” and “I’m going to ask for the maximum to be thrown at him.” After investigation, Integrity Commissioner Jonathan Batty has concluded that in fact Grimes stayed in his lane: he didn’t actually direct or interfere with operations, and he said as much in media appearances. He should, however, be a little more judicious with the
royal municipal “we” going forward.
IA39.1: In the wake of a dire announcement from the paramedics’ union, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam has Questions about paramedic service levels and working conditions. (A few questions mention Toronto Fire in comparison; some internecine emergency services rivalry? Maybe it’s a bad time to bring up the new firefighting speedboat they’re getting.)
PH30.9: What can the City of Toronto do about the proliferation of predatory payday loan and cheque cashing places? To sum up the staff reports: not much more than it’s already doing, which is licensing payday loan establishments and capping the number that can operate.
CC39.13: In recent years, governments across North America have joined enormous class-action lawsuits against drug companies in an attempt to recoup the massive public health costs of the opioid crisis. The government of Toronto is involved—but unsurprisingly, the details are confidential.
Tree Removal Application of the Month
This month’s featured tree removal application is for this delightful linden (Tilia americana) near the Gardiner and the 427. As usual, staff do not support removing it. Etobicoke York Community Council voted to let it go ahead as long as the owner plants (or pays for) five replacement trees. But what will Council say? Stay tuned.
NEXT WEEK: On Monday, Budget Committee weighs in one last time before sending the budget off to Executive Committee on Friday. There’s also a TTC board meeting.
City Hall Watcher #160
This one was a doozy. I’m grateful to all the nice people who explained things to me as I emitted confused noises from my face hole. And thanks to all of you for reading this! Please send along any corrections, questions, “more of a comment than a question”, etc.
If you made it this far, you should definitely subscribe—because next week, Matt makes a glorious return with a brand-new Lobbyist Watch. Get the next issue in your inbox right away:
See p. 59 of the SHJN Winter Plan [PDF] for how they arrived at their estimate, which uses some of the same shelter flow data. The time period they use is last winter (November 2020 to March 2021), and they also use inflow vs. outflow numbers. They also factor in Street Needs Assessment estimates. Altogether SHJN estimates 9,014–9064 people are in need of shelter, and the shelter system’s “bed deficit” is 2,199–2,250.