You'd think housing advocates would be jumping with joy at news that the city will soon start building its first affordable co-op units downtown in almost two decades.
Instead, they've hit the proverbial roof, worried that the plan by Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) to renovate a shelter run by Dixon Hall to provide permanent housing for hotel workers may end up putting more homeless people out on the street.
That's because the emergency shelter at 60 Richmond East will have to be closed to make room for the $20 million, 85-unit project.
The Co-operative Housing Federation and hotel workers union UNITE HERE! are scheduled to begin transforming the building at the end of May, and the co-op is expected to open in late fall 2008.
TCHC hopes to put a roof over the heads of many hotel workers being pushed out by redevelopment in Regent Park.
But street nurse Cathy Crowe of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee is troubled by the closing of 60 Richmond East, seeing it as part of a trend of gutting services for the homeless in the downtown core.
According to Crowe's count, some 410 overnight shelter spaces have been lost downtown since last year (see sidebar). Meal and drop-in programs at 60 Richmond were closed in 2004.
"This makes no sense at all when we've got shelter crowding and a lot of people outside," says Crowe.
Toronto shelter, support and housing administration spokesperson Patricia Anderson says the city is looking for a replacement shelter as "a top priority," possibly near University Avenue.
But housing activists worry that whatever beds become available to make up the shortfall will be outside the core and largely inaccessible to the homeless people who need them most.
Of four new shelters slated to take up the slack from recent closures, three are outside the downtown core, including one way out at Midland and Sheppard in Scarborough. And the largest of these, a 60-bed mixed adult shelter scheduled to open in late October in Bethlehem United Church, is at Caledonia and Lawrence.
Anderson says some 340 available shelter beds remain empty every night across the city. But housing advocates contend that those empty beds are in shelters outside the core that homeless people can't get to.
Of Toronto's total 4,060 shelter beds, some 2,851 are located in the core. Even if the city's admittedly conservative estimate that there are 5,000 homeless people in Toronto is believed, it's easy to see why shelters downtown are filled to overflowing most nights.
Anti-poverty activist Beric German
is all for affordable housing but says shelter spaces will continue to be needed until homes can be built.
Others who work in the shelter system say problems like poor working conditions and understaffing are continually ignored by the city.
Still, area councillor Pam McConnell (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) is excited about the housing co-operative and hopes it's only the beginning.
"What we haven't had in the past is an opportunity to build a new housing co-operative and to do it for a needy targeted group, [in this case] the low-end wage earners working in our hotel system, very much the working poor," says McConnell.
Meanwhile, starting in May, regulars at 60 Richmond East may have trouble finding alternative beds nearby.