One night last week, I went undercover at three Toronto respite centres: All Saints Community Centre-Church, Margaret’s Drop-In and the Better Living Centre, which was recently opened by the city to deal with overcrowding in the shelter system. I surreptitiously video recorded what I saw with a hidden camera.

I felt conflicted about doing that. On the one hand, I wanted to respect the privacy of those who have to use the city’s respite centres.

On the other hand, maybe capturing the conditions would help make a positive and humane difference, and somehow force decision-makers at City Hall, who have been reluctant to fund more shelter beds, to recognize the depth of the actual suffering that’s occurring.

My experience at the centres was one of profound sadness. The pain I witnessed was overwhelming. From people uncomfortably sprawled in sleeping bags – some agitated, many sick ­– to overcrowding, the respite centres are dangerous places where suffering manifests itself in violence and anger that can break out at any time.

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