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The George Street Revitalization: a better news story

November 12, 2015

Imagine your horror if you opened your morning paper and read:

“Yesterday City staff rounded up over 600 single men from across Toronto and detained them in a vacant office building in the City’s downtown eastside.

Many of the men were elderly and ill. Over 60 were taken out of a downtown long-term care facility, with another 65 removed from an innovative assisted living facility. Other men had been staying in one of 15 small neighbourhood-based shelters. City Council defunded these shelters last March, with closures planned over a five-year transition period.

John Semple, 58, was one of the men woken by an early morning knock at his WestLodge Avenue apartment in the City’s west end. Semple had been receiving a $400 per month housing allowance that, combined with social assistance, enabled him to rent a one-bedroom apartment. Semple reports a City employee told him he had to give the shelter allowance back.

The City later confirmed that all shelter allowances would be returned to fund shelter operations. Said Mayor Tory, “It costs the City $75 a day for every shelter bed. We simply can’t run a shelter and still afford housing allowances for men like Mr. Semple to have their own place. It’s just not feasible. But the good news is that Mr. Semple can stay at the shelter entirely free of charge.”

Wouldn’t you protest? 

Does everyone recognize this backwards version of the George Street Revitalization (GSR) story? This multi-year initiative approved by City Council on November 3rd will see Seaton House – Canada’s largest men’s shelter – replaced by:

  • a 378-bed long-term care facility, with up to 64 beds allocated to formerly homeless people who need specialized supports
  • 130 assisted living beds for men and women, with supports provided by the Inner City Family Health Team and Inner City Health Associates
  • 21 permanent affordable housing to be managed by a non-profit agency
  • a new emergency shelter with 100 beds in one-, two- and four-bed rooms. Each room will have its own bathroom
  • a 56,000 square foot community service hub spread across the new building and restored heritage properties.

Isn’t this good news? Thirty-five years ago I worked at Dundas and Sherbourne and saw grown men cry at the prospect of staying at Seaton House. Since then the City has poured millions of dollars into retrofits, and dozens of community agencies and City staff have done their darndest to make it work. But in the end, it will never be a real home for the men who stay there.

So why are so many people (including my friends!) protesting?

I can guess some of the reasons.

It’s because change is awful. It’s not just that people have to leave Seaton House. It’s that decisions are made on their behalf and there is little they can do about it. They will leave friends. They will move to unfamiliar places. And it is all because they don’t have their own money to call their own shots.

It’s awful for the people who serve them too. Staff will be transferred. Jobs may be lost and good services dismantled. That doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision – we would never create a Seaton House now — just that it will be hard.

It’s because we somehow don’t trust the City to do the right thing. I know the project lead for the George Street Revitalization has devoted much of his adult life to serving vulnerable people. I know City staff are meeting one-on-one with all Seaton House resident to discern their needs.

I know this because I’m one of 20+ members of a GSR Stakeholder Advisory Group. But how does the City build trust among people who feel they are out of the loop, and who find the rhythms of internal City decision-making confusing and impenetrable. I’m not sure how to bridge this divide – only that it exists. I welcome your thoughts.

It’s because gentrification really IS a problem. Any public investment – new LRTs, parks, schools, bike paths and the George Street Revitalization – will increase property values. That’s a problem in a city where housing costs have already become completely unhinged from incomes.

So how do we ensure public investment benefits everyone? The solutions include Inclusionary Zoning, housing allowances, and new affordable housing – all the things that preserve a mixed-income downtown. All the things we know.

And how do we prevent a repeat of the 1960s debacle, when the province closed hospital beds and the promised community-based alternatives never materialized? By pushing to see the savings from closing shelters go straight into permanent homes.

$75 a day towards a better home

Like the protesters, I too have dreams for the men who now live at Seaton House and those who will come after them. Here’s what excites me.

Street-wise long-term care. For me, the most exciting thing about the GSR was the potential to create long-term care for street-involved people who are often rejected by mainstream facilities. We need it – and not just for Seaton House residents. People who have been homeless age prematurely, with illnesses in their 40s that the rest of us don’t see until our 60s. Many of the City’s shelters, and almost half of the City’s supportive and alternative housing have stairs. We need more options.

Fewer shelters, more homes. I don’t want to replace every lost shelter bed with another dormitory bed. I want to do much better. The City says it costs $27,375 per year[1] to give each shelter resident an, at most, 10 x 10 foot space. That’s $273/square foot (SF). The annual operating cost of a new one-bedroom non-profit apartment, now in the development stage? Less than $26/SF. Gives you pause, doesn’t it?

More money in people’s pockets. Will we ever give Seaton House residents a choice: “You can have a bed in a shelter. Or you can have $75 a day to spend on a home of your own?”

Or for every person leaving a shelter, would we give six people $380/month? Added to the $479 ODSP shelter allowance, that’s $859 a month. You won’t get a fancy place for that, but it would be better than a bed and a locker. Or would we combine housing allowances with supports, At Home/Chez Soi style, as the City has proposed for those with most complex needs?

So, here’s my question:

How could $75 per day really make someone’s life better? When we know the answer, we’ll know what’s worth marching for.

[1] Improvements to the Emergency Shelter System Staff Report, p. 13.

TCHC: Some ideas just won’t work

October 15, 2015

I’m not the only amateur pundit concocting “big and bold” ideas for TCHC’s future. As I scan the comments sections of the Toronto media, or simply talk to friends, I hear all sorts of ideas for reforming TCHC.

However, some of these ideas remind me of an old cartoon. The consultant is standing beside a graph chart in a corporate boardroom saying, “When I say reform, I don’t necessarily mean better.” Here are four widely circulating reform ideas that I think would do more harm than good. Read more…

TCHC: Big, bold . . . and BETTER

September 29, 2015

The Mayor’s Task Force on TCHC has been mandated to consider “big and bold” ideas for TCHC’s future.

They are needed. Getting it Done, TCHC’s response to the recommendations in the Mayor’s Task Force’s Interim Report, points the way with great ideas — 60 new cleaners, community safety officers assigned to regular beats, the possibility of live-in supers, and the inspiring Re-Set initiative. But I confess that I, backed by decades of experience, lack confidence that TCHC will be able to execute these great ideas without structural change. Read more…

Rooming houses for a more affordable Toronto

September 17, 2015

Many years ago flames flared out of our family’s fireplace. In the two minutes it took to scoot my young children out the door and bring the fire under control, the smoke had spread throughout the house and filled my third-floor bedroom with ash.

The fire taught me that my home’s staircase functions as a chimney that can instantly spread danger to every part of the house.

What did I do about it? Nothing.

Read more…

Turning around George: A success worth repeating

August 25, 2015

I hope all of you saw Ben Spurr’s excellent article in the August 11th Star, “Making social housing work: a TCHC success story.” The article describes the turnaround of 291 George Street — a 132-unit building that even street-hardened men were too scared to live in — into a clean and decent home.

If anything, the article downplays the building’s success. In just one year after the “turnaround pilot” was introduced: Read more…

Rooming houses made respectable

April 28, 2015

How do you help newcomers afford their first mortgage, seniors stay in their homes longer, or students find a home close to campus? You rent out rooms. Read more…

Five ideas for the TCHC Task Force

January 16, 2015

How exciting to see Mayor Tory make good on his election promise to form a Task Force to improve Toronto Community Housing – and how good to see Senator Art Eggleton and five other thoughtful leaders ready to commit themselves to the task.

Until this moment, most public attention has been focused on TCHC’s massive repair backlog, and that surely is a topic the Task Force must consider. But it shouldn’t be the only one. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly improve the lives of the 160,000+ people who live in TCHC now, and prepare TCHC to meet the needs of generations to come.

Here are five outcomes I’d love to see on the Task Force’s agenda. Read more…


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