The Changing Face of George Street
A half-billion dollar project could dramatically change one of Toronto's oldest and neediest streets, and local advocates want to make sure it's done right.
A half-billion dollar revitalization of one of Toronto’s most blighted streets promises significant change, but also raises questions about how the George Street Revitalization can best respond to the diverse and complex needs in Toronto’s downtown east side.
In November, City Council voted to move forward with the George Street Revitalization, a project that promises to update the much-criticized Seaton House men’s shelter and bring new investment to the historic Toronto neighbourhood.
Scheduled to finish in 2021, the revitalization is projected to cost between $350–$550 million.
According to the City’s website, the new George Street will “create a more welcoming, safe and vibrant neighbourhood for all.” But exactly what that means has generated concerns from local residents, homeless advocates, and medical practitioners, all of whom are looking to shape the future of one of Toronto’s oldest streets.
The redevelopment would see the city’s largest homeless shelter—with 543 beds—replaced with a 100-bed men’s shelter, a 378-bed long-term care facility, 130 units of assisted living, 21 units of affordable housing, and a community service hub.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) has met with residents and staff at Seaton House several times over the past two-and-a-half years and has also toured the site with Mayor John Tory.
“There is a level of anticipation that this needs to happen,” Wong-Tam told Torontoist this summer, noting that there is a great deal of support for the project from local residents and social service providers.
“Sometimes, people are stuck in their trauma or stuck in their place. What the George Street Revitalization hopes to do is try to help people find housing and independent or formalized support not in the shelter,” Wong-Tam said.
“The plan is to make a facility that can be used, that can be sustained, over the next 100 years.”
Seaton House has been a fixture of George Street for over 80 years. It opened its doors in 1931, as the newly-formed Department of Public Welfare sought to provide relief to unemployed and homeless men wracked by the Great Depression.
Originally located at 320 Seaton Street, the shelter served both employable and destitute single homeless men; its large three-story building offered two separate programs—a residence for unemployable or older men, and a hostel for able-bodied men who were able to work.
In 1958, the building at 320 Seaton Street was demolished and, on January 7, 1959, was replaced by the current Seaton House at 339 George Street.
For all of its history, Toronto’s largest shelter has seen its share of problems over the years.
Homeowner Glen Simourd, a member of the North George Street Working Group, welcomes any change to the current Seaton House, which he calls “an awful mess.”
Citing drug trafficking, fighting between residents, and frequent ambulance appearances, Simourd says Seaton House makes the area “the worst street…the worst block in the city of Toronto.”
Simourd says he and other residents are supportive of the proposed long-term care facility, which would assist homeless people who are elderly or in need of more advanced medical care.
However, residents are concerned about how spaces like the community hub—about which the City has not provided details—will function.
“We don’t want that hub to ever, ever become a bed for transients. We got our share, we got enough,” Simourd says.
“We as homeowners would have loved to see a lovely condo building going up there,” he added.
John Clarke, an organizer at the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, led a protest to the proposal at City Council on November 3.
Clarke believes the project “is linked to a broader strategy to try to push the homeless shelters out of the central part of the city.”
If that were to happen, he says it would “put homeless people out on the fringes of the city where there aren’t support networks and where the physical distances are much greater.”
Seaton House serves thousands of men annually and provides services such as the Annex Harm Reduction Program, which helps connect men with alcohol abuse problems with healthcare. The program also provides men with one alcoholic drink every 90 minutes to try and reduce harm, making Seaton House the only ‘wet’ shelter in the city.
But if emergency beds are relocated to the suburbs and outlying areas of the city, Clarke worries that “there is no network of service provision.”
The resources to improve Seaton House and George Street are considerable. $50 million is required to transition Seaton House clients during the construction phase and to relocate approximately 200 permanent beds that won’t return to George Street. More details are expected in this year’s capital budget, which will be presented to the public at city hall on December 15.