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Proposed emergency shelter creates clash between city council and residents

Residents of Rockcliffe-Smythe object to a proposed 100-bed, emergency men’s shelter in their struggling neighbourhood.
July 10, 2016
By Betsy Powell

With some of Toronto’s homeless shelters becoming homeless, council is being asked this week to develop a management strategy to help overcome community opposition to proposed new sites.

“Putting in a new shelter is very challenging,” said Councillor Paula Fletcher, a member of the community development and recreation committee.

“It’s unexpected. Rumours fly in the community, there’s no work done ahead of time. It’s just kind of announced, ‘Come to a meeting.’ It’s all about talking to people, and that doesn’t seem to happen.”

The latest proposed shelter to face local resistance is a former Goodwill store at 731 Runnymede Rd., south of St. Clair Ave. W. It’s one of up to 15 new sites planned over the next five years, some in parts of the city where there have previously been none.

Residents say the area, known as Rockcliffe-Smythe, is slowly evolving from gritty to gentrified, but insist their opposition to a 100-bed men’s emergency shelter isn’t a case of NIMBYism.

The 18,500-square-foot building isn’t fit to house so many homeless men, say the residents, who also cite a lack of public transit and social services.

Residents say they’ve been working on neighbourhood improvement, and that the shelter proposal seemed to come out of nowhere and without what they believe is proper consultation.

“I’d warn the rest of the Toronto to watch out,” said Miriam Hawkins, the co-chair and acting president of the Rockcliffe-Smyth Community Association. “The city is not seemingly practicing due diligence to its planning. We need to (house people) properly.”

Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) “did a really good job surveying real estate, but a really bad job surveying communities,” said Deane Frances, a social services worker.

Last month, dozens of residents sent emails and appeared before the city’s community development and recreation committee to voice opposition. One business owner offered to help staff “search for an alternate location that makes sense.”

“This proposed homeless shelter is a very dangerous idea and I will fight with the city to put a stop to this,” wrote one woman.

In response, SSHA staff explained that the location, in the south part of Ward 11, is well-suited for a new shelter and meets the requirements of the municipal shelter bylaw, which allows shelters in all zones and districts provided a site is more than 250 metres from another shelter and is on a major or minor arterial road.

City staff say services are located nearby, including a drop-in program, a community health centre and a local employment office. They also pledged to work with social development staff to enhance services for the homeless men.

The committee’s chair, Councillor James Pasternak, appeared calm but seemed to have only so much patience by the end of the June 23 meeting.

“If we folded every time a community objected (to a shelter) . . . we would not be able to set these up anywhere in the city, and we certainly have a moral and social obligation to have them,” he said.

Pasternak contended later by phone that the consultation process should be improved, adding that the key to moving forward will be “early dialogue and dispelling some of the myths, misunderstanding and stereotypes of having a shelter in your area.”

The committee passed several motions to address resident concerns about 731 Runnymede, which will go before council, but none to kill the proposal.

For Councillor Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park), this is her first experience with the challenges of opening a shelter in Toronto. The Runnymede building is in Ward 11, but just one short block from her ward.

“As we have found out, once the city staff have selected a location, that location will happen,” she said. She went door-knocking and believes she reassured some residents that the residents won’t be “kicked out in the morning” but can remain on site during the day.

“Not everyone is opposed to it,” she said.

Councillor Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston) was not pleased with how the selection process was handled, but hopes council approves the slew of committee motions, which will go a long way toward addressing community concerns. They include making improvements in the area and ensuring the facility offers services on-site.

In the meantime, city staff will continue to identify future shelter sites. They have no choice, Fletcher said.

For decades, Toronto’s emergency shelters have been in the inner city, with its well-established social infrastructure. But buildings and churches that housed those shelters are now “worth a hell of a lot of money” and are being sold, Fletcher said.

Add to that the closure of Seaton House - Toronto’s largest men’s shelter - on George St., near Jarvis and Gerrard Sts., which will displace more than 600 men. Instead of the large institutional setting of Seaton House, the city plans to rebuild a network of smaller shelters, with no more than 125 beds each.



How many emergency homeless shelters are in Toronto?

As of Jan. 1, there were 59 permanent shelter facilities. Ten are operated by the city and 49 run by 30 community not-for-profits under purchase-of-service agreements with the city. Shelters for victims of violence are run by the province.

The city plans to open up to 15 new shelters. Why?

New sites are needed because of the George Street Revitalization, which includes the closure of Seaton House, and ongoing occupancy pressures.

Where will the new shelters be located?

There is no list, though there is a summary where more than 80 properties have been considered. Staff are looking for potential sites in all wards across the city.

Since council approved (March 2015) the infrastructure and service improvement plan for the emergency shelter system, how many new locations have been identified?

Four have been approved: Cornerstone, Vaughan Rd., north of St. Clair Ave.; CONC in the Bloor and Christie area; the Salvation Army’s Leslieville shelter; and the city has purchased the Comfort Inn in Scarborough as a location for seniors. The Runnymede shelter would be the fifth.