The Schoolhouse homeless men's shelter might not shut down after all.
As demand for shelter space continues to rise and the province cuts back on homelessness assistance, city staff are recommending that the facility be kept open, at least for now.
In May, the city provoked outcry among housing advocates by suggesting the closure of the aging facility on George Street in Toronto's downtown east end, which is one of the few "wet" shelters where clients are permitted to drink alcohol onsite.
But this week the housing administration released another report recommending that the Schoolhouse continue to operate, albeit with a different programming model. Starting January 1, clients would no longer be allowed to drink, and the number of beds would be reduced from 55 to 40. They $7 nightly user fee would also be eliminated, and instead the Schoolhouse would function as a regular emergency shelter, pending the implementation of the city's new long-term homelessness strategy in 2014.
The changes will be debated at next week's community development committee meeting, and would have to be approved by council.
John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty says that keeping the Schoolhouse open would represent a rare win in the struggle for homelessness services in Toronto.
"This is a little victory, but it's part of a bigger battle," he says. "What we'd like to see is a society where we really could put a padlock on the door of the Schoolhouse because it wasn't needed. But we don't have that, and we're a long way from having that."
While he's pleased the site could stay open, Clarke says the proposed solution is less than perfect because it would reduce the number of beds at the facility and would no longer permit clients to drink, which he sees as a vital element of any alcohol harm reduction strategy.
"The solution being proposed here is a step down, and needs to be challenged," Clarke says.
OCAP, which led rowdy protests at City Hall in support of the Schoolhouse last spring, is planning another demonstration on November 14.
But local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says programming at the Schoolhouse is being improved, not getting worse. She believes OCAP is overreacting by resisting anything but the status quo.
"I know that there's been some difficulty for some of the advocates who say, leave everything alone, don't change anything, everything's working fine," she says. But the debate about the shelter's possible closure "started a conversation that has now updated the service at the Schoolhouse."
"It's about the city evaluating a model of care that didn't work."
In 2009, Dixon Hall, the non-profit agency that operates the Schoolhouse on behalf of the city, announced that it intended to terminate programming at the facility. Among other concerns, the agency cited the 126-year-old building's deteriorating and cramped conditions. Late last year they stopped admitting new clients.
The shelter's fate appeared sealed earlier this year when the city reviewed its operations and found that instead of being a transitional shelter that helped men find permanent homes, half the Schoolhouse's clients were staying there for more than a year, using it as de facto housing. Staff also determined the building needed $300,000 in repairs over the next five years, had insufficient space for necessary programming, and concluded its operations should be discontinued and not replaced.
But recent changes to the homelessness situation in Toronto appear to have caused a rethink. According to the hostel services report, since 2009 there has been an increase in shelter space demand and men "sometimes have to wait an extended period for a bed." Demand will only increase in the winter months, and maintaining 40 emergency beds at the Schoolhouse would help the city cope.
Another change is that the province recently altered its funding model for homelessness prevention programs. Under the new formula, Toronto will receive $96 million from Queen's Park, which is $21 million less than in previous years.
Funding for emergency shelters will also be capped, instead of needs-based. In September the city manager's office warned this could mean the city will be unable to respond to sudden increases in shelter demand due to economic downturns, an influx of refugees, or a large fire like the one at 200 Wellesley St. in 2010.
Last month, city council approved consultations for a long-term homelessness strategy to deal with these new realities. The long-term future of the Schoolhouse would be part of those consultations.
The city is currently in talks with Dixon Hall to continue operating the Schoolhouse under the new model. The agency is working on finding permanent housing for the 15 clients that remain at the site.