A small sea of red shirts breathed a collective sigh of relief Wednesday when council unanimously voted to help stop a beloved South Riverdale homeless shelter from closing.
The city will now work to find a permanent home for the 106-bed Red Door Family Shelter, whose future is in doubt thanks to a messy real estate dispute. It was great news for the facility's many backers, two dozen of whom sat in the council chamber wearing red t-shirts to show their support.
After the vote, Red Door's executive director Bernnitta Hawkins said council's decision had given the city-funded shelter a "strong foundation to stand on."
"It says clearly that our funder is supporting us and that's very important," she said.
The property at the shelter's 875 Queen East home has been placed in receivership as a result of litigation between its co-owners - diet doctor Stanley Bernstein and his neighbours Norma and Ronauld Walton - and is in the process of being sold. Red Door's preferred option is to stay onsite and it is in discussions with the prospective buyer to include space for the shelter as part of new condo development on the property. The company is reportedly receptive but Red Door would have to come up with between $4.6 to $6.2 million in order to buy part of the new development.
The report council passed doesn't make any firm funding commitments as yet, but asks that the city manager "explore all mechanisms, including financial options" to keep the shelter running. City staff have been working on a plan that would help Red Door buy space in the new condo development by increasing the shelter's $2.6 million annual operating subsidy and providing it with a loan guarantee that would go towards a mortage.
Other options include relocating the shelter or having the city try to establish title on the property. A detailed plan will likely go back to council next year for approval.
The local councillor, Paula Fletcher, says that her community overwhelmingly approves of keeping the Red Door where it is. Residents turned up by the hundreds to a recent emergency community meeting and have launched a public support campaign.
"I've never heard one voice against the shelter. There are signs [supporting the Red Door] in every store in Queen Street and Leslieville and Riverside," Fletcher said. "What we're signalling today is tremendous support from the community which has been matched by a unanimous vote by city council."
The Red Door offers shelter to families who are fleeing domestic violence or have been recently evicted, as well as to refugees. It typically operates at between 96 and 99 per cent capacity and its 106 beds represent 13 per cent of the permanent spaces in the shelter system's family sector.
The backing it has received from its neighbours is extraordinary compared to the often divisive debates about where to locate facilities for other sectors of the homeless population, including single men or those struggling with addiction.
In a speech on the chamber floor Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam told her colleagues that while it was "absolutely fantastic" that they were standing up for the Red Door, she hoped they would be just as supportive the next time a more controversial homelessness issue came before them.
"To me, that would be a proud day for council," she said.