When Dan Shaffer turned up at the St. Michael’s Hospital emergency room, it wasn’t for a medical crisis. In his early 70s, Shaffer had been evicted from his apartment and had nowhere else to go.
ER staff tried to get him into a shelter, but couldn’t. Beds, citywide, were full. They brought him to a small, warmly lit room in a side hallway, with pullout couches and reclining chairs that serve as a stopgap when someone doesn’t have a medical reason to be admitted. Staff offer food and warm clothes and add a tick to a whiteboard every time they can’t find shelter beds.
Shaffer remembers the turmoil of that night. He’d never been homeless, and was at a loss for what came next. “I’ve never been in a situation where my life was taken out of control,” he said.
Hospital staff called the city’s shelter intake line over and over that night. By the next day, they found one room at a north Toronto shelter hotel. Over the ensuing year, as Shaffer feared the remainder of his life would be stuck in the shelter system, a new outreach team from the hospital’s emergency room worked with him to find long-term, stable housing.
This is the reality inside the hallways of St. Michael’s; while Toronto hospitals have struggled with broader pressures on the health care system, their ERs are also on the front lines of the city’s mounting homelessness crisis. Carolyn Snider, the emergency room chief at St. Michael’s, says more than 4,500 homeless Torontonians came through the doors of the downtown trauma centre in the last year, about 15 per cent of them simply because there were no alternative shelter options.