TORONTO – Canada’s most populous city is considering changing the language used to describe services for the homeless as part of a broader overhaul of its shelter system.
But some critics say Toronto’s rebranding efforts may not do much to improve public perceptions of shelters and those who use them.
In April, Toronto’s politicians approved a plan to rethink the way its emergency shelters operate, and launched an effort to change public attitudes around adding shelters to communities.
Going forward, the city says, shelters will place a greater emphasis on helping people find permanent housing and connect to employment and health services.
“It’s going to be more client-focused, more mindful of community services and the need to integrate and link people up with the services they need,” said Patricia Anderson, a manager with Toronto’s support and housing administration division.
The city acknowledges, however, that opening new shelters in a community often results in heated debate and strong opposition.
With that in mind, it hired a pair of strategic consulting firms, at a combined cost of $59,700, to gage public opinion on homelessness and examine a potential name-change for Toronto’s homelessness services. The work is being conducted through focus groups, polls and an online survey open until Dec. 12.
“We’ve often said that the need is to change the conversation about homelessness, so that’s part of what we’re hoping to achieve by looking at the option of making a name change, if that’s where the research points us,” Anderson said.
Toronto will eventually hire a marketing company to promote its new shelter approach and spread awareness for the services shelters provide, Anderson said. In the meantime, the new shelter strategy has been temporarily dubbed “First Steps to Housing.”
Some who use the city’s services say language choices can be a big part of navigating the stigma around homelessness.
“When I’m applying for something, I always say I’m in a ‘temporary living situation,'” said Sharon Mark, who has lived for the past seven months at a 24/7 drop-in centre run by Sistering, a community agency for at-risk women in Toronto. “Calling (a shelter) something like a safe haven or a retreat is better than ‘a shelter.'”
Many residents often have no idea how many vital services shelters, drop-ins and other facilities helping the homeless can offer, added 63-year-old Mark.
“People are here for different reasons, but there’s nobody here that doesn’t need some kind of help that a shelter or drop in can provide,” she said.
More than 16,000 people accessed the city’s shelter system in 2016, municipal stats show. And on any given night, there are 5,000 people sleeping in shelters, the figures show.
As of Nov. 13, Toronto’s family shelters were completely full, and the shelter system as a whole was at 96 per cent capacity, the city said.
Given the imminent need to expand shelter capacity, some critics said Toronto’s rebranding efforts around services for the homeless are using up valuable resources.
“Most of the community people I’ve talked to that work in the field are pretty skeptical of the language shift,” said Cathy Crowe, a nurse who has worked with Toronto’s homeless population for nearly 30 years.
“An emergency homeless shelter is an emergency homeless shelter, and people who are homeless are homeless. You can’t change that with a fancy name.”
Crowe called for the city to pay more attention on expanding shelter spaces.
“I think the city is unfortunately diverting way too much in the way of resources to that (rebranding) strategy,” she said.
Swapping out the name of homeless services is not likely to change people’s perceptions of shelters and shelter users, added Paul Dowling, project manager of HomeComing Community Choice Coalition, who attended one of the city’s focus groups on its rebranding efforts.
“You might fool them for a while but as soon as they figure out what you’re talking about any negative view they have of homeless people is going to get transferred to that new name,” he said.
Dowling noted, however, that the city was doing important work in re-examining how shelters operate.
“There certainly is a lot to be done in terms of changing people’s understanding of homelessness and their understanding of shelters, what they’re all about and what they’re like,” Dowling said. “If the city can have some impact on that it would be helpful.”