Homeless people turned away from shelters more than 200 times this summer, data shows

People were turned away from the London’s homeless shelters more than 200 times in June and July, numbers obtained by CBC News show. 

The city’s shelters operate on at capacity year-round, said Kevin Dickens, the deputy city manager who oversees social and health development. 

But the numbers show just how often people are turned away — including from the Youth Opportunities Unlimited shelter for young people and the Rotholme shelter which services families. (The Unity Project has funded shelter beds but operates on a different model and did not turn people away).

“We are turning people away. We’re turning youth away, we’re turning families away, every single night, and that has a massive impact on the front-line staff that do that work,” Dickens said. “You want to help somebody and you have no help to offer them. You have nowhere to send them to.” 

People were turned away more than 200 times from homeless shelters in London in June and July, numbers show. (Prepared by CBC)

People can be turned away from shelters for a variety of reasons aside from capacity issues, including in some shelters if they are under the influence of drugs, if they’re exhibiting aggressive behaviour or if they’ve been banned from a shelter in the past. 

The numbers illustrate the number of times shelters have turned people away, so some may have turned away a person multiple times in one night. Officials estimate 2,000 people live on London’s streets. More than 200 homeless people have died in the last three years. 

“Imagine if you get turned away from somewhere every day in a week. You’re probably not going to go back there to ask for shelter a second week,” Dickens said. 

A chart that shows how many times shelters in London turned people away in June and July.
A chart showing how many times shelters in London turned people away in June and July. (Supplied by City of London)

With nowhere to go, people end up couch surfing, sleeping in doorways, or heading to one of the several encampments set up along the Thames River. 

Since late 2017, London has been using something called the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HFIS), a data collection management system that allows officials to understand what is happening with homelessness and shelter-use in the city, Dickens said.

Not enough shelter beds

“It allows us to make decisions and planning around how to support the community, to work as effectively as possible,” he said. 

“What the numbers tell us is that there’s more seeking shelter beds than the current capacity of the system provides, and it tells us that our shelter workers are making really difficult decisions every single day about how people are able to access their spaces, and for those who are unable to access the space, how to support them in some other capacity.” 

The database can show staff if there are other spaces available in the city, Dickens said.

The city is launching a new model of dealing with the homeless crisis, based partly on opening a system of hubs all over the city that will be open 24/7 and offer about 25 beds to sleep for those without homes, as well as support to help people off the street and into permanent housing. 

“It’s morally crushing for frontline staff to have to turn people away, that’s why they’re so adamant and so involved in trying to create new spaces, net new beds, through this different service delivery model that can help meet the needs of high-acuity individuals so that we’re not constantly putting staff members through this process of having to turn people away,” Dickens said. 

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