Councillor Josh Colle listens to deputations at the Community Development and Recreation Committee, August 14, 2014. Photo by Ben Spurr.
A city committee has approved the controversial relocation of a homeless shelter to the Oakwood Village neighbourhood, despite opposition from many residents and their local councillor.
The Community Development and Recreation Committee made the decision Thursday in a unanimous vote. The plan will now go to council at the end of the month for final approval.
Dozens of people signed up to speak at the committee meeting, many arguing against moving the 50-bed Cornerstone Place men's facility to 616 Vaughan Road, at the intersection with Oakwood.
For 14 years, the shelter operated out of church about 1.7 km away at St. Clair West and Hendrick, but it closed its doors at the end of last month after the property was sold to a condo developer.
Residents presented a litany of arguments against the proposed relocation, including the lack of services for the poor in the area, the possibility of exacerbating pre-existing criminal activity, the proximity of the proposed site to a residential area, and lack of proper community consultation.
"For decades, the area has been plagued with illegal activity" including drug dealing and illegal booze cans, said Anna Sottile. Inviting 50 homeless men into the area "is putting them in harm's way, at the epicentre of what likely drove them to be homeless" in the first place, she argued.
Another deputant named Patricia Martins went as far as to suggest that the sight of homeless men in the neighbourhood would be "much too difficult to explain to the children in our area."
Although close to 1,000 people have signed petitions against the shelter, not all Oakwood Village residents are fighting it. Deputant Susan Sneyd said she was "concerned and embarrassed" by how afraid some of her neighbours are of the relocation plan.
She argued that the facility could actually be a catalyst for positive change. As part of Thursday'svote, the committee approved the creation of an "Oakwood Vaughan Strategy" to address unemployment, crime, and lack of economic development in the neighbourhood.
"Having Cornerstone open at Vaughan may well be the trigger that we absolutely need to get more social services and foundations in our community," Sneyd said.
Stephen Ferreira, who is homeless, also spoke in support of Cornerstone. He said it is much safer and better run than most shelters.
"Cornerstone management gave me back my dignity and sanity," said Ferreira, who first stayed at the shelter in 2011 after a bad investment deal cost him his home and his family.
Ferreira called residents who oppose the shelter "fear-mongers."
"They're all thinking about the value of their real estate," he said. "You gotta give it chance."
The local councillor, Josh Colle, doesn't sit on the committee but drew up a motion asking for a decision on the relocation to be deferred until the next term of council. Committee member Josh Matlow introduced it on Colle's behalf but it failed on a 1-to-5 vote.
While residents who oppose the shelter have been accused of NIMBYism, Colle said city staff had provoked the backlash by "botching this process so badly."
Shelter Support and Housing Administration staff only held a public meeting on the relocation last month after they had already recommended council approve it, and Colle said that days before the consultation staff had still not sent out notices inviting residents to attend.
"Unless I had called and kind of yelled [at staff] they actually would've sent zero notices to anybody," Colle said. "I've never seen them disregard or botch a process like that."
Colle still believes there are better locations for the shelter, but said he wasn't sure if he will reintroduce the deferral motion at council.
Patrick Reid, executive director of Cornerstone Place, said that a deferral until next year would mean the end of the shelter. The conditional bid that Cornerstone has placed on the Vaughan property will expire on August 29, and it can't go ahead without council approval.
Even if the issue isn't deferred, the Cornerstone's survival could come right down to the wire. Council's final meeting of the term begins on August 25, and is expected to drag for days.
"A delay in this case really means death," Reid said.
Committee member Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said council has no choice but to approve the relocation. She reminded her colleagues that earlier this term council decreed that occupancy across the shelter system should not exceed 90 per cent. Wednesday night it was sitting at 93 per cent, and even if the consultation wasn't done correctly the city can't afford to lose Cornerstone's 50 beds, she argued.
"Shelter, like housing, is a human right," she said. "We cannot simply remove that simply because the initial conversation was not timely."