Toronto buying four prefabricated structures as demand for emergency shelters surges
June 6, 2018
Jennifer Pagliaro and Emily Mathieu
The city is purchasing four “highly sophisticated,” temporary structures as demand for emergency shelter and 24/7 respite sites remains high even after winter temperatures have subsided.
The four prefabricated structures, manufactured by Canadian company Sprung Instant Structures Limited, cost $2.5 million each, which does not include the cost to operate them. They are meant to serve as temporary sites where anyone in sudden need of a place to stay can rest, access food, showers and support services.
“We are currently working to secure appropriate, vacant city properties that will be used for these structures,” Paul Raftis, the city’s general manager of the shelter, support and housing administration division, told reporters on Wednesday. Each structure is expected to house 100 people, costing on average about $100 per person per day.
Two of the four sites are planned to be opened as soon as August, to replace two city-run, 24/7 respite sites at the Don Mills Civitan Arena and Lambton Arena. The city is looking at sites downtown and east and west of the core, Raftis said. No decisions have been made on locations, but Raftis said they are considering sites that are solid and level like parking lots and not parks.
Winter respite services, available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, typically end April 15 with warming temperatures, but because of the high occupancy in the city’s emergency shelter system and a clear need for additional places for people to go, council directed staff to continue providing respite spaces.
The Sprung structures have been used in North America as temporary housing, emergency shelter, aquatic centres and classrooms, the city says, and could be repurposed when not needed as respite sites. They will have washrooms, showers, laundry facilities and HVAC systems to provide temperature control. They are also accessible.
The city has been working toward implementing permanent standards for all respite sites, or rules around cleaning, the type of beds and the amount of space people need. Over the winter, health care providers and activists visited multiple sites, documented crowded conditions and spoke to people who reported feeling unsafe, or concerned about theft as well as verbal and physical violence and not having adequate access to showers and toilets. City staff boosted inspections at the sites over the winter and pledged that interim standards would also be put in place, until a full plan could be devised.
At last count, 433 people stayed in eight existing respite sites and an additional 115 women sought refuge at two 24/7, year-round women’s only drop-ins. One drop-in site is Sistering, where women line up to sleep on about a dozen reclining chairs and the rest are left to find mats or free space on the floor.
“This place should not have to exist. These women should have proper places to live,” the agency’s executive director, Patricia O’Connell, speaking with the Star last year about the dire need for better services for vulnerable people.
“The only thing you can say is it is better than a women sleeping on a grate or in a park.”
Since January, the city has seen the number of people staying in the city’s permanent emergency shelter system continue to climb, from 5,663 people on average in January to 6,630 in May.
Raftis said the new structures are not meant to help with the city’s current challenge of housing refugees, who are arriving in increasing numbers, many from Quebec. With shelters for families and motel spaces full, the city is currently housing refugees at Centennial and Humber college dorms for the summer months. Those spaces are filling up, Raftis said. Centennial is full and Humber is a quarter full, he said.
“We really need to work towards that regional strategy with the provincial and federal governments,” he said. He acknowledged a longer-term solution is addressing the lack of affordable housing in the city. Earlier this month, the federal government committed $50 million, including $11 million for Ontario, to help house refugees.
Mayor John Tory earlier requested help, noting the city’s costs would be $64.5 million by the end of the year. He called the federal commitment a “start toward the federal government meeting its responsibilities to cities.”
Cathy Crowe, a street nurse who has pushed for better solutions to the shelter crisis and advocated for improved standards in drop-ins and respite centres, toured a similar structure being used as a gym by a private school in Toronto. She called it “impressive.”
“It’s like disaster mode that the city’s moving into, they’re just not calling it that,” Crowe said. “They certainly had to do this.”
She said the city is being creative, but must continue to call for relief from the provincial and federal governments.
Each Sprung structure measures 150 feet by 60 feet (46 by 18 metres), erected using an aluminum frame and “high-performance” tensioned fabric and fibreglass, according to the city, and will include: