Should Toronto armouries host homeless?

Fort York Armoury sheltered homeless men for a few months in the 1990's. Why not now? (c)

Toronto Mayor John Tory, under pressure from City Council and homeless activists, said Wednesday he will ask the federal government to allow the city to use Toronto’s military armouries as emergency homeless shelters.  This is a complete reversal of his position at the December 9, 2017 City Council meeting where he spoke and voted against a motion by Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to ask for the armouries to be opened. The Mayor has also stated repeatedly, including today, that the city’s shelter system has not exceeded its capacity and that there have been empty beds available every night during the recent cold spell.

However, facts and figures not withstanding, the mayor has buckled under the political pressure. That’s a bad decision that will help no one. For those who may want a primer on the city, the homeless and the armouries, here are 17 Q&A’s for your (somewhat long) reading pleasure.


1. What the hell do I know?

I spent 14 years as an army officer and, in my last military job, my responsibilities included managing requests from Ontario for emergency help. I also negotiated the agreement between the Canadian Forces and the City of Toronto for the use of its armouries in the event of emergencies, including extreme cold weather. Later, I served as the Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Toronto and saw the internal machinations of the city government from the inside.

2. What is an Armoury?

An “Armoury” is a building that houses military reserve units and their equipment. Reservists are part-time members of the Canadian Armed Forces who typically participate in military training one evening a week, one weekend a month and a few weeks over Christmas and/or in the summer.

3. What happens in an Armoury?

If you walk past an armoury during the day-time, it may seem very quiet – with only a small cadre of full-time soldiers working in administration, logistics, maintenance and planning roles. Armouries come alive on weeknights and weekends – when part-timers show up to train and practice their military skills. Most armouries in Toronto house multiple units – so, even though each unit may train only one night per week and one weekend per month, there may be a different unit training every night and every weekend.

4. What’s inside an Armoury?

Armouries include offices for planning and administration as well as vehicle maintenance bays and warehouse facilities that store military clothing, equipment, vehicles and weapons – everything from pistols and assault rifles to heavy machine guns, mortars, anti-tank rocket launchers and howitzers. Naturally, security is always a concern. They normally also have a large, open space similar to a gymnasium or arena floor where soldiers train and parade. Vehicles are often stored there during very cold weather. It’s these large parade squares that have occasionally been used as emergency shelters – with dozens or hundreds of cots set up.

5. How many Armouries are there in Toronto?

There are four “armouries” in Toronto: Moss Park and Fort York downtown, HMCS Toronto on the lakeshore near the island airport and the Capt. Bellenden Hutcheson Armoury in South Etobicoke that is shared with the Toronto Police College. There is also a headquarters facility at Downsview Park. The latter two facilities are utilised 24 hours per day. The first three are busiest at night.

6. Who owns the armouries?

The armouries are owned and operated by the Department of National Defence. The land under Fort York Armoury is owned by the City of Toronto and is leased on a long-term basis by the military. Fort York Armoury is a designated heritage building with the largest latticed wood arched roof in Canada. Ownership of the land will likely revert to the city in the future.

7. Weren’t they used as homeless shelters before?

Yes. In the mid 1990’s and again in 1999, Toronto requested federal assistance during particularly cold winters. Both Fort York and Moss Park armouries were opened as emergency shelters in the mid 90’s (Fort York alone in 1999) and operated by the City of Toronto.

8. What was that like?

It depends who you ask. It was very expensive and disruptive for the military – training had to be cancelled or postponed, creating challenges for part-time soldiers who have limited availability. The cost of alternative arrangements was significant – as was the cost of salaries paid to part-time soldiers required to provide security for sensitive areas in the building. Units receive very limited budgets for salaries and training and money spent helping run a shelter was never recovered from the city, leaving units unable to fully fund the training schedules they were tasked to complete.

The homeless people who used the armouries, however, generally liked the experience. Many homeless men told me they liked staying in the armouries because they had very large and open spaces that felt like being outside, something they preferred. They also liked the army’s bare nylon cots which were free of bedbugs, unlike some shelter mattresses. Because the armouries were sparsely used, there was lots of space for people to spread out providing a sense of privacy and allowing for better sleep without your neighbour as the lack of snoring from people pressed close together. In particular, users of the armouries commented that they felt very safe with the uniformed presence of soldiers going about their business – even though those soldiers were not there to provide security for the refugees. They also felt their personal possessions were safer at the armouries – seeming to mistakenly think the military was securing them, when in fact they were in the custody of city employees – and liked that they could come and go as they please and use their alcohol and drugs outside.

9. What’s special about armouries?

This city-owned community centre is just steps away from Moss Park Armoury – and empty at night.

Absolutely nothing. The city could – and should – use its own facilities before asking to use the armouries. They are better suited to the task and there are, literally, hundreds of them. Toronto has 100 libraries, 148 community recreation centres (including this one just steps away from the Moss Park Armoury), 5 under-used civic centres and scores of empty buildings all over the city. Metro Hall has been used as an emergency winter shelter in the past and could be again with a few hours’ notice. The same goes for City Hall.

10. But aren’t most of the city’s buildings already being used?

Yes. But so are Toronto’s four armouries. In fact, the city buildings are generally empty at night – precisely when the homeless need shelter. The armouries, on the other hand, are busy at night, when the homeless need them most. Repurposing an armoury is at least as disruptive, probably more so, than sheltering homeless people in any of the city-owned buildings.

11. Aren’t libraries full of books homeless people might steal?

I suppose. And city-owned office buildings and community centres have lots of equipment, computers, and other stuff that could be damaged or stolen if you let people stay overnight. You’d definitely need security. But, consider that armouries have computers and office equipment, too. They also have military vehicles and lots and lots and lots of guns and ammunition. What are you more concerned about losing?

12. Isn’t this why the army exists?

Not really. The taxpayer – that’s you – pays taxes to different levels of government for different things. The taxes you paid to take care of homeless people went to the city and provincial governments – not to the federal government, and certainly not to the military. The tax money you gave to the military goes to pay soldiers to train for and be ready to fight wars.

True, the military is required and is always ready and eager to help provincial and municipal governments in emergencies when that government is unable to manage and has exhausted all of its own resources. But, Toronto has not exhausted its resources. It has, literally, hundreds of its own buildings it could use to shelter homeless people from the cold. It just doesn’t want to.

13. How can the city access military help?

The process is straightforward. If the city is incapable of helping itself and has exhausted its resources, it can request in writing that the provincial government provide assistance. It’s then up to the province to exhaust its resources and admit it’s incapable of managing without federal help and the minister responsible requests help from the Minister of National Defence.

 14. Does that take a long time?

Not really. These requests must be made formally, in writing. But, normally each government picks up the phone and calls the Emergency Operations Centre at the other end. The military will receive a “Warning Order” putting them on standby at the first hint they may be needed. Military commanders throughout the chain of command will immediately alert their personnel and begin preparations so they can spring into action the instant they are formally tasked. Local commanders also have the discretion to act immediately, on their own initiative, if required.

15. So, why not just put homeless people in city buildings?

My guess is the Mayor and City Councillors are afraid constituents may complain if there are smelly, sick, mentally-ill and drug-addicted homeless people in their libraries and community centres. The army doesn’t complain.

16. What does this say about the Mayor and Council?

In order to access military assistance, the Mayor and Council must declare they’re incapable of managing the situation on their own. That may be true. But, that’s a sad state of affairs, isn’t it? After all, that’s what they get paid for. Declaring their own incompetence is a shocking step to take. I hope we make some better choices next Election Day.

17. When is that election?

October 22, 2018.