By: Lauren Atmore
With the city’s 2016 budget deadline looming, the familiar fear of which services are going to be cut is creeping in. One area that is chronically underfunded are Toronto’s emergency shelters and drop-in centres, and unfortunately 2016 doesn’t look any more promising.
Although the City of Toronto website tells us there are 47 emergency shelters and hostels for our city’s most vulnerable, they are frequently over-populated and often have trouble meeting demand, especially in the winter and in poor weather conditions. When it comes to low-barrier options, there are even fewer options.
Many emergency shelters do not provide to low-barrier access for those who need them. With low-barrier access services, “the aim is to have as few barriers as possible to allow more people access to services. In housing this often means that tenants are not expected to abstain from using alcohol or other drugs, or from carrying on with street activities while living on-site, so long as they do not engage in these activities in common areas of the house and are respectful of other tenants and staff.” Essentially, these types of drop-in centres allow people to access services quicker, with fewer stipulations in place.
According to the Wellesley Institute, low-barrier access is important because “people should be able to get the help they need with low psychological barriers and procedural hurdles.”
Sistering is one of Toronto’s only low-barrier 24/7 drop-in centres. Executive Director Pat O’Connell says the lack of municipal funding for these services is at a crisis level. As she outlined at WiTOpoli’s 2016 Budget Explainer, the city and other channels of funding are only able to go so far, offering just band-aid solutions to a systemic issue. While healthcare is funded in part by the federal government and managed by the province, Pat explains how emergency facilities like Sistering are expected to pick up the slack. She often sees women dropped off at the centre by hospital or police services, only to have Sistering not have the necessary resources to handle someone in such dire need, and the clients being turned back to the very same services that brought them.
The silver lining is that organizations like Sistering focus on harm reduction which is an effective strategy in helping women avoid emergency services like hospitals, and saves nearly $1000 from our healthcare system with each trip avoided. They give women access to basic necessities like regular meals, hot showers and safe places to sleep which are the building blocks for women to get back on their feet.
But with the threat of reduced funding year over year, those working closest with the people who use shelter and drop-in services worry about making ends meet – or worse, having to turn people away. Advocates like Pat urge Torontonians to use their voices and harness political to make change. Many of the people in the emergency shelter system aren’t able to campaign for their needs as they struggle to make sure their basic needs are covered. While the goal is to ultimately build up our support systems to help people avoid poverty and the need to use emergency services, what Pat says we need right now is more places for women to go.
By writing, calling, tweeting and contacting our councillors and representatives at higher levels of government, we can let them know that the safety of those in need is a paramount concern that requires action now. Here’s a draft letter you can use when writing or e-mailing your councillor on this issue. Be sure to contact them ASAP – the budget will be presented in council this week on February 17th and 18th.