The threatened School House homeless men's shelter, the focus of heated protests demanding the doors stay open, might not have to close after all.
In the face of rising demand for shelter space and provincial cuts to homelessness assistance, the Community Development and Recreation Committee endorsed a report by staff Wednesday, November 14, recommending the facility remain open, at least for now.
A few months back, the city provoked an outcry among housing advocates by suggesting the closure of the aging facility on George Street in the downtown east end. It's one of the few "wet" shelters where clients are permitted to drink alcohol on site.
While this week's report keeps the School House operating, it proposes 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. The $7 nightly user fee would be eliminated, and instead the School House would function as a regular emergency shelter, pending implementation of the city's new long-term homelessness strategy in 2014.
The report still has to be approved by council.
John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, whose group headed to City Hall Wednesday to keep the pressure on, says that keeping the School House open would represent a rare win.
"This is a little victory, but it's part of a bigger battle," he says. While he's pleased the site can stay open, Clarke says the proposed solution is less than perfect because it reduces the number of beds and no longer permits clients to drink, which he sees as vital to alcohol harm reduction.
But local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam believes OCAP is overreacting by resisting anything but the status quo. "I know there's been some difficulty for the advocates who say, ‘Leave everything alone,'" she says.
In 2009, Dixon Hall, the non-profit agency that operates the shelter on behalf of the city, announced its intention 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. Although it was supposed to be a transitional shelter, half of its clients were staying for more than a year, using it as de facto housing. Staff also determined that the building needed $300,000 in repairs over the next five years and had insufficient space for necessary programming.
But recent changes to the homelessness situation appear to have led to a rethink. According to a Hostel Services report, since 2009 shelter-space demand has increased, and men "sometimes have to wait an extended period for a bed."
That's not all, however. The province recently altered its funding model for homelessness prevention programs. Under the new formula, the city will receive $96 million from Queen's Park - $21 million less than in previous years.
Funding for emergency shelters will also be capped rather than needs-based. In September the city manager's office warned that this could negatively affect the ability 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 in 2010.
Last month, city council approved consultations for a long-term homelessness strategy that deals with these new realities. The School House's future will be part of the deliberation.