City alarmed by rising violence in homeless shelters, including assaults on staff
A city worker at Toronto’s downtown referral centre for homeless people was attacked by a client as she left the building and beaten so badly that she required facial reconstruction surgery.
Another city employee was stabbed at a shelter, one of three stabbings —none fatal — since last summer.
New figures show there’s been a sharp increase in violent incidents in Toronto’s homeless shelters over the past five years, with the opioid crisis, crowding and a shortage of adequate mental health supports among the reasons being cited.
According to numbers provided to the Star by the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division, there were 40 acts of violence in 2015, but that number more than tripled to 157 incidents in 2019. There was a slight drop last year, to 136 incidents. The city defines acts of violence as physical assaults or verbal threats.
Officials with the city’s shelter department say part of the increase can be attributed to the fact that threats — not just assaults — are now being recorded in the data, but the officials also say that serious acts of physical violence against shelter workers are occurring more often.
“There have been a few more very serious acts of violence in the past year. That includes the three stabbing incidents — two in 2021 and one in 2020,” said Gord Tanner, director of homelessness initiatives and prevention services for the city.
Tanner went on to say that the severity of these incidents is “new” for the city’s shelter and homeless support service.
The cases — starting with the 2018 assault on a worker at the referral centre — have led the shelter, support and housing division to institute a wide range of health and safety protocols in the workplace.
The city is also working with CUPE Local 79, the union representing the shelter workers, to come up with strategies to address the troubling uptick in violence.
The local’s president, Dave Mitchell, said staffing in shelters isn’t keeping up with the need, and neither are housing supports for the homeless.
“It’s not acceptable that we have the level of homelessness that we have in this city. And that includes the precarious nature around people possibly falling into homelessness,” Mitchell said
“We need to treat the homeless with more dignity, and that means building more housing, yet we continue to underfund this at every level.”
Mitchell said the 2018 assault outside the assessment and referral centre was a “terrible, terrible” incident that may have resulted from overcrowding at the facility. It’s a 15-bed facility, but Mitchell recalls seeing 80 to 90 homeless clients lying on the floor one night when beds in the system could not be found for them.
The assault involved a woman in her 30s and her attacker, a client, was taken into custody by police.
The woman required surgery to repair the severe damage to her face, Mitchell said.
As for the stabbings, the first happened in early August last year, when a client staying at an interim shelter near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue (since closed) went after a shelter worker.
Police said a 55-year-old Toronto man was arrested after allegedly assaulting a woman and rushing at other staff while brandishing a knife. Security managed to subdue the man until police arrived.
Darren Hynes has been charged with aggravated assault, assault with a weapon and weapons dangerous.
The female staff member was hospitalized in serious condition.
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The other cases involved a stabbing at a downtown shelter on Jan. 5 and another on Jan. 17 at a North York shelter. In the first case, the victim was a staff member; in the second case, it was a client.
Tanner, the city’s director of homelessness initiatives, said the impact of the overdose crisis on front-line workers in the community and in shelters has been “devastating.”
He added that “front-line staff are working as first responders in terms of identifying and intervening and trying to save lives.”
Toronto’s shelter system has 100 sites, including 11 city-run shelter locations, 53 shelter locations operated by outside agencies, shelters for families and refugees, agency-operated 24-hour respite centres, women’s drop-ins and 25 COVID-19 response sites.
About 6,250 people stay in Toronto’s shelters and respites each night, and the city saw 16,000 unique individuals go through its shelters in 2020.
The workforce of the shelter and housing department is about 700 people. (Roughly 400 staff from the parks department were brought in and trained last year to bolster manpower in new shelter spaces required due to COVID-19.)
Mary-Anne Bedard, general manager of the shelter, support and housing department, said whenever an assault takes place, the Ministry of Labour attends and conducts an investigation.
The ministry recommended the shelter and housing department establish site-specific workplace violence programs, Bedard explained.
“Each shelter was able to assess the risks of their own workplace and how they would address those risks,” she said.
“A lot of it has to do with physical set-ups — are there places where people are likely to be alone, are there blind corners? We want to be able to do that kind of assessment and then take action that would address things that are potentially going to create health and safety hazards for staff.
“We also do workplace violence surveys (where) we are asking staff about their experience in the workplace,” Bedard added.
Other changes include hiring two dedicated health and safety officers to work with the city’s corporate health and safety team, as well as the formation of a divisional health and safety advisory group with representatives from the union and the city. The advisory group meets regularly to discuss any issues related to workplace violence.
It is also now mandatory for all front-line staff to undergo training on crisis de-escalation and health and safety. A separate workplace violence training program isn’t mandatory now, but the city is working to make it so this year, Bedard said.
She believes the rise in violence in shelters the last few years is in part due to a “steady increase” in the number of people who have mental health issues and the lack of adequate supports for them.
“We are seeing an increase of people in the shelter system in need of significant mental health support — our front-line workers often bear the brunt of that,” Bedard said.
There’s also been a shift in drug use that may be elevating the violence, Bedard went on to say. “People moved from crystal meth to opioids a number of years ago, but have shifted back to crystal meth — which has the potential for people to act more erratically and more violently sometimes.”
She said she takes the challenge of violence in shelters very seriously.
“For me, this is one of the most important issues. One of my main responsibilities is ensuring the workplace is safe for the people offering these very critical services.”
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent
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