City council has voted in favour of adding 400 beds to Toronto’s shelter system “as soon as possible” but has opted not to push for emergency shelters to be set up at the Fort York and Moss Park armouries.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam had moved a motion asking that a formal request be submitted to the Department of National Defence so the city could open temporary shelters at the armories before the end of 2017; however council ultimately voted 25-17 against the idea following a debate that dragged on for most of Wednesday.

The vote came after an emotional plea from Wong-Tam on the floor of council.

“I am open to all sorts of solutions but what I am troubled by with this proposal and this plan is that the community of front-line workers are saying that it doesn’t work for them. Don’t force more beds into an overcrowded situation,” Wong-Tam said of the plan to add 400 beds, mostly through renting motel rooms and finding additional space at existing facilities. “This is why when you are walking to work and shopping at the Eaton Centre you are literally walking over people. It is because they can’t get into those facilities.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Deputy City Manager Giuliana Carbone confirmed that staff had reached out to DND regarding the armouries but she noted that there are “challenges” with using the armories as emergency shelters.

The federal government, however, did indicate some willingness to work with the city on Wednesday, with Spadina-Fort York Member of Parliament Adam Vaughan taking to Twitter to suggest that Ottawa was “ready to respond.”

Vaughan later released a statement noting that DND would have to be made aware of how the city would “facilitate and operate the armouries” before evaluating the request.

“The Canadian Armed Forces stand ready to offer assistance in support of civilian authorities during any crisis in Canada, including the use of our armouries as shelters for the homeless, wherever and whenever required,” Vaughan wrote.

City has used armouries for shelter space before

The federal government has allowed the city to operate emergency shelters at its Toronto armouries on a number of occasions, most recently at the Fort York Armoury in 2004.

Though the idea has long had the support of a number of homeless advocates, Toronto’s poverty reduction advocate told CP24 on Wednesday afternoon that the city may be better off with an “in-house” solution, which he said would be “simpler and easier to manage.”

“I am not against the armouries if they are something that the federal government would be offering for free tomorrow. But they won’t be offered for free tomorrow,” Ward 21 Coun. Joe Mihevc said. “The last time there was a big cost to it. It could also take a long time to negotiate a contract, to negotiate the fees and to negotiate what happens to staff. That could take not days but weeks and in the meantime people are out in the cold.”

Tory has said that staff have suggested that using the armouries for shelter space is not a “desirable option,” though the interim general manager of the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration did indicate on Wednesday that it is “always an option” and hasn’t been ruled out.

Nonetheless, Tory told council that there are still better tools at the city’s disposal, mainly the potential use of city-owned buildings.

“If our staff or the people that I sought advice from outside had said to me that the armouries are the best option I assure to you I would not have waited to go back to my office. I would have pulled my phone out of my pocket right there and called the Minister of Defence and said we need the armouries but I wasn’t told that,” he said. “I was told that the armouries were down the list.”

Tory said that work is underway to expedite the completion of three new shelter facilities with a combined 291 beds that are currently scheduled to be completed in 2019.

He said that staff are also looking at possible locations for an additional winter drop-in site.

As well, he said that he plans to convene a meeting with housing stakeholders with the goal of locating a large number of units that could be provided to people who are “ready to go to housing from the shelter system.”

“Let’s get these things done and we will then take stock of where we are,” Tory said.

City council has set an occupancy standard of 90 per cent for its shelter system, though facilities regularly exceed that threshold.

On Tuesday night, 95 per cent of the city’s 5,568 available shelter spaces were filled and that shot up to 99 per cent in facilities reserved for women.

Asked at Wednesday’s meeting if 400 beds would make a discernable difference in occupancy rates, the interim general manager of the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration conceded that it is impossible to say.

“It is difficult to predict if the 400 beds will change that occupancy because we felt that adding the 1,400 beds in the last 12 or 14 months would have changed that occupancy rate and it did not,” Paul Raftis said.

Following the vote against Wong-Tam’s motion, a number of anti-poverty advocates who had filled the council chamber began yelling “shame on you” at the mayor.

“Shame on you. Shame on all of you. People are dying on the streets and you can’t even ask for the armouries. Shame on you and shame on you again,” one of them said. “Where is your phone Tory?” I will call if you don’t have the guts to ask. You are a coward.”

Tory did say on Wednesday that moving ahead on his plan to add 400 shelter beds doesn’t necessarily rule out further action down the line.

Wong-Tam, meanwhile, said that while the new beds are a positive step, it is not enough given the scale of the crisis.

“Live are at risk,” she told CP24 following the vote.