NIMBY protests of a new men's shelter at 850-854 Bloor Street lack compassion—and miss the point.
The recent announcement that a Bloorcourt men’s shelter was set to open in February 2016 came in the same week as housing advocacy group Raising the Roof staged a much-discussed awareness campaign in Leaside. In that week, shortly after the charity released video of angry Leaside residents’ opposition to what would turn out to be a fabricated shelter opening, an anonymous group of shelter opponents delivered a brochure to my Bloorcourt doorstep, invoking fearful stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness. The shelter prompting angry outcry in Raising the Roof’s video is a fake, but the one opening in my neighbourhood is real. Arguments against both shelters reveal an unsurprising parallel in their messages: Not In My Backyard.
The brochure I received suggests that if the shelter proceeds, nearby Irene Avenue Parkette will become “unsafe for everybody.” I was saddened to see these assumptions come from my neighbours, and saddened to see such negative stigma placed on men who would access the facility.
The proposed shelter will accommodate 30 beds for men aged 16 and up, and will provide a range of services to support clients, including case management, a drop-in program, as well as medical, employment and housing supports, all designed to provide pathways out of homelessness. These services will be available alongside the existing LOFT Kitchen café, a youth-led social enterprise.
This past Monday, October 26, I attended a community meeting to learn more about the shelter, and about its reception in the neighbourhood. Overall, I was heartened to hear an impressive amount of voices in favour the shelter. But there were a lot of caveats. I was deeply troubled to hear one resident equate homeless men with murderers and pedophiles. Misinformation about homelessness circled the room, making it clear we have a lot of reflection, learning and unlearning to do. A couple of astute speakers wondered how we could better educate Torontonians and Canadians about homelessness.
At the end of the meeting, the room was left greatly divided. One comment made by Councillor Joe Mihevc really stuck with me. He had come to share experiences about incoming shelters in his ward, and said shelters have been most successful when they’ve had an active and engaged community. I took to heart the importance of building healthy and constructive relationships with not only shelter operators, but also with shelter clients. They are people, key stakeholders and fellow citizens. I was very conscious of their complete absence in the room. Their voices had no representation. It made me wonder, what would it be like if our neighbourhood warmly raised a welcome banner instead of greeting this shelter with hostility and mistrust? Would those experiencing homelessness be present if they felt welcome? Wouldn’t that be an wonderful place to start in building a new relationship?
More shelter beds are needed in this city now more than ever. Over the winter of 2014-2015, shelters in Toronto operated over capacity, turning people away at the door when they needed shelter most. The Toronto Homelessness Memorial estimates that 10 people died on our streets last winter, and over 740 people have died since 1985. Another cold season is fast approaching. The shelter at 850-854 Bloor represents 30 out of 150 new beds the city plans to create in the coming year.
Gordon Tanner from the city’s Shelter, Housing Support and Administration division, stated Toronto’s shelter systems currently has 4300 beds, and that pressure on the system is on the rise due to high rent prices across the city, along with virtually no new rental or affordable housing available. People are being squeezed out onto the streets. The Bloor / Ossington / Dovercourt neighbourhood is a prime example. Anyone living in the neighbourhood over the past several years can attest to the rapid gentrification of the neighbourhood, and the skyrocketing housing prices that have come with it.
If the shelter can open on schedule, it will help eliminate needless deaths. Opposing the shelter or calling for another location of the shelter prioritizes the discomfort of privileged residents over the lives of our most vulnerable members of society. This is a reality much colder than any sub-zero temperature. People are dying. They don’t have time to wait. I view the opposition of a shelter as a kind of wishful thinking; the absence of a shelter at this location does not equate to the absence of homelessness in our neighbourhood. It already exists here. We can’t send it somewhere else because it exists there too. People experience homelessness in all parts of Toronto. One benefit a shelter might bring is increased access to support services and staff for men who are already in the area.
Unfortunately, until we cultivate enough political will to end homelessness, we still need emergency beds and pathways to housing. After reading this article I encourage you to write to your newly elected MP, and your MPP. Demand an end to homelessness, and demand more affordable housing. It’s no secret that it is more cost effective and far more humane to provide people with housing and supportive services than it is to treat homelessness. The shelter at 850-854 Bloor Street won’t end homelessness, but what it might do is save someone’s life. Or grant someone the dignity of a bed to sleep in at the end of the day. The thing is, men who experience homelessness already live here. It’s their neighbourhood, too.
Lindsay Denise is an housing accessibility advocate and former CHFT board member currently studying public administration in Toronto.
This article originally mislabeled the neighbourhood of the proposed shelter as Bloordale when it is, in fact, Bloorcourt. We regret the error.