Fifteen months after city council voted to open up more shelter space, a 50-bed facility for homeless men has quietly closed its doors.
The Cornerstone Place near St. Clair and Oakwood suspended operations on Thursday to make way for a condo development. Its future is up in the air; plans to temporarily relocate to a church nearby fell through, and while there is a proposal to reopen in October at a permanent location at Oakwood and Vaughan, it's facing vociferous opposition from local residents.
The decision to close Cornerstone comes despite council approving a plan in April, 2013 to add more beds to the system in order to lower shelter occupancy to 90 per cent.
Zoë Dodd of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty condemns the closure, and says eliminating emergency shelter beds is like "removing lifeboats from a ship."
"We are in a housing crisis... We know that when we don't have shelter space for people the outcome could be death," she says. "We need to be expanding the shelter system, not losing shelter beds."
Wednesday night occupancy across the system was 92 per cent, while the men's sector was 88 per cent full.
Cornerstone's closing was not well publicized, but it was a long time in coming. The Cornerstone Baptist Tabernacle, which ran the shelter program out of its church building with city funding, informed the city in July 2012 that it had sold the property to the Rockport Corporation, a condo developer. A search for a new location began but in the meantime the shelter leased the space from Rockport and was allowed to stay put. The church, meanwhile, moved to a new building at 21 Blackthorn in Ward 17.
According to staff, Rockport was cooperative in accomodating the shelter and extended its lease several times. In June, with the deadline to move out only weeks away, city staff tabled a report at the Community Development and Recreation Committee recommending that council approve Cornerstone's relocation to a former restaurant at 616 Vaughan in Ward 15. But when it got to council Councillor Josh Colle, who represents the ward, successfully moved a motion to refer the issue back to staff to conduct a public consultation.
Anticipating that a permanent site wouldn't be ready this summer, the June report endorsed a plan to temporarily house some of the shelter's clients at the new church on Blackthorn, but that didn't happen.
According to Pat Anderson, spokesperson for the Shelter Support and Housing Administration, the temporary move was called off because the church would need to be renovated to accommodate the men. Because the location on Vaughan also needs work, "it was felt that the men's sector could absorb a short-term loss of the 50 beds... thus avoiding the expense of two renovations."
But on July 15, Ward 17 Councillor Cesar Palacio sent residents a letter saying he had tried to block the temporary move, which he said staff had introduced without consultation as a "last minute item" at committee.
"That was Totally Unacceptable!!! [sic]" the letter said. "Therefore, in order to protect our rights as a community, I called upon the Chief City Planner, the Deputy City Manager, and the City Solicitor, to intervene and turn down this ill conceived [sic] plan. Failing this approach, I had rallied support of my colleagues on Council to stop this illegal plan at Council, if necessary."
The letter claimed that council had rejected the Blackthorn site when fact, councillors merely voted to refer the report back to staff.
Palacio did not return NOW's request for comment, nor did representatives of Cornerstone.
Anderson says staff is still recommending the permanent move to 616 Vaughan. That proposal will go back before the Community Development Committee on August 14 and if approved, will go to council later in the month. But it's highly controversial in the ward and it's unclear if it will pass. According to the York Guardian, residents angrily denounced the plan at a consultation meeting on Monday attended by about 300 people.
Andrew Ross of the Oakwood Village Community Association says 616 Vaughan "may in fact be the worst possible location" for the shelter because the surrounding area is heavily residential and lacks services for the homeless. He also argues that a homeless facility would reverse recent progress the community has made in cleaning up drug and other criminal activity near the intersection of Vaughan and Oakwood and would deter new businesses from moving in.
"Rightly or wrongly, when somebody's looking to locate a business, if they see that there's a homeless men's shelter there, they look elsewhere," Ross says.
Councillor Colle blames city staff and Cornerstone for the shelter's closure, arguing that they left it too late to find a new space. He also says he was shocked that staff recommended council approve moving the shelter into his community without first consulting with residents.
"Everyone's like, ‘they're trying to rush it. Is there something they're trying to hide here?'" he says. "It almost made it toxic before we could even discuss the content of the issue."
According to the Shelter Administration, staff has been meeting with Cornerstone's 49 clients every day since July 21 to find them alternate accommodations. Anderson says that as of mid-week, 24 men had been placed in other shelters, 10 had "made their own plans," and five "were very close to securing housing."