Councillor Joe Mihevc and Reverend Patrick Reid speak with reporters, August 27, 2014. Photo by Ben Spurr.
City council has rescued a 50-bed homeless shelter from closure, overruling objections from some residents and the local councillor who tried to stop a plan to move the shelter into their neighbourhood.
After 14 years operating out of a church on St. Clair West, the Cornerstone Place men's shelter suspended operations at the end of July after the property was sold to a condo developer. Council voted 40 to 3 on Wednesday to relocate it about two kilometres away to a building on Vaughan Road, near Oakwood.
After the vote Reverend Patrick Reid, the executive director of Cornerstone Place, said he was "thankful to God and to city council" for the decision.
"I'm just overjoyed at what has taken place today. Justice has certainly been served," he said.
The building the shelter is moving into is a former restaurant and needs to be renovated, and Reid predicted it could take until October or November to get it up and running. In the meantime 35 of Cornerstone's 50 clients have been moved other shelters, while 15 opted to make their own arrangements.
Although the vote was ultimately not close--only Josh Colle, Mayor Rob Ford and Doug Ford were against--in the run-up to this week's council meeting the relocation proposal was extremely divisive in the Oakwood Village community.
Hundreds of residents turned out to a public meeting in July to denounce the plan, and over 1,000 people signed a petition opposing it. Supporters countered with a 700-name petition supporting the move, and on Monday they released a legal opinion that argued allowing the shelter to close for good might be a violation of homeless people's Charter rights.
Councillor Colle, who represents the Oakwood Village area, took up the cause of the opposition and tried to block the relocation on Wednesday. He asked council to refer the issue back to city staff to find an alternate site.
Any delay would likely have caused Cornerstone's bid for the Vaughan property to collapse and effectively killed off the shelter however. Most councillors weren't willing to let that happen and the referral was voted down.
Colle did win support for a package of social supports that he said would help mitigate the impact of the shelter, including requests for additional community health and youth outreach workers for the neighbourhood, and the creation of strategy to stimulate economic growth.
Although Colle and residents who opposed the shelter have been accused of NIMBYism, the councillor called the label "dismissive and patronizing." He pointed out that in recent years the community has welcomed supportive housing into the area, which also hosts an office of the John Howard Society. He argued that residents weren't against homeless shelters in general, but that Cornerstone didn't belong at the Vaughan site because the surrounding neighbourhood lacks social supports for homeless people and the property has historically been a site of drug crime.
He also complained that staff at the Shelter Support and Housing Administration had provoked the local backlash by giving residents only three days notice about a public meeting on the relocation plan. "Something went seriously off the tracks," he said.
Under questions from council Phillip Abrahams, acting general manager of the Shelter Administration, said that according to the city's shelter bylaw his staff were under no obligation to consult residents about the relocation. But he admitted that his department "could have done better" at communicating the plan.
But Councillor Gord Perks argued that Colle should have done a better job getting out in front of the issue and informing his residents that a shelter was coming, instead of leaving it up to staff.
"Councillor Colle didn't take that path and instead is now trying to blame staff for his failure," Perks said. "This is his fault."
Councillor Joe Mihevc, one of the relocation's strongest supporters, told reporters that while residents deserve to have input about homeless facilities moving into their neighbourhoods, they don't have the right to veto them.
"I cannot say that I don't want a particular class, race, ethnic, religious group living beside me," he said. "I don't have the right to say [the homeless] can't be my neighbour."