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A manager at Beatrice House stands in one of the Toronto shelter's vacant hallways on June 18, 2016. (JENNIFER ROBERTS for The Globe and Mail)
A manager at Beatrice House stands in one of the Toronto shelter's vacant hallways on June 18, 2016. (JENNIFER ROBERTS for The Globe and Mail)

Unstoppable real estate market displaces Beatrice House shelter Add to ...

For a space that’s home to dozens of children, Beatrice House is awfully quiet on this afternoon at the beginning of June. That’s because it’s nap time, 1:30 p.m., and all of the babies and toddlers in the colourful childcare centre are curled up inside their cribs and cots.

In other parts of the three-storey, century-old building, women are using the downtime to get things done. The kitchen manager is finally eating her own meal after the lunch rush, while a woman in stretch pants does some yoga in a high-ceilinged activity room. At a desk in the front hall, a woman with intricate braids chats on the telephone while idly leafing through apartment rental ads. There is a big stack of them, because Beatrice House is shutting down: A developer, Urbancorp, plans to start building on the site this fall.

The YWCA has run this transitional shelter for homeless single mothers and their children for 14 years. “These are women who are on wait-lists,” says residential manager Alethia Lewis, who has worked here for a dozen years. All of the women here have spent time in the emergency shelter system, which has much less privacy and much shorter residencies – families are allowed to stay in Beatrice House for up to two years while the moms work toward gaining stability in their lives. Some are fleeing domestic violence, while others have unstable immigration status. All are in line for subsidies or community-housing openings. Here, they can at least get themselves off of one list – daycare, for which about 17,000 children are currently waiting in Toronto.

Since 2003, Beatrice House has leased the former Hughes Public School from the Toronto District School Board. It’s on Caledonia Road north of St. Clair, and is big enough to house 27 families, each with private bedrooms and bathrooms.

Three years ago, TDSB put the land up for sale for $8.9-million, but the YWCA decided not to buy it. “It’s never been the most suitable space,” says Heather MacGregor, YWCA Toronto’s CEO. For one thing, it would be extremely expensive to renovate the drafty building to be accessible, which will be mandatory for public buildings in Ontario by 2025. So eventually, TDSB sold to Urbancorp.

The closure will make Beatrice House the latest shelter to be displaced by Toronto’s seemingly unstoppable real estate market. In April, the Salvation Army closed its Hope Shelter at McCaul and College streets, after the University of Toronto bought the site. Last spring, the Cornerstone Place men’s shelter at St. Clair and Oakwood avenues also closed to make way for a condo development.

For a short while, the YWCA thought Beatrice might be saved like the Red Door Family Shelter on Queen Street East, which was almost evicted when its landlord went into receivership last year. After much lobbying and community support, the new owner, Harhay Construction, agreed to include a brand-new, 94-bed family shelter alongside the seven-storey condo it plans for the site, as long as the shelter can raise $3-million to furnish it.

In 2013, Urbancorp approached the YWCA with a proposal: If the organization would sell the developer a parcel of land elsewhere in the city, Urbancorp would integrate a new Beatrice House into a development there. “This was wonderful,” says Ms. MacGregor, who adds that discussions, paperwork and “detailed architectural drawings” had been going on for almost a year and a half. “They said they would extend the lease at Beatrice House until the new property was built.”

Then, in December, she says, Urbancorp announced that those plans were off. The YWCA learned that it would have to close the childcare centre this month and the entire residence by August. “I think they had sold the townhouses and the people who bought them weren’t willing to wait,” Ms. MacGregor says. Urbancorp is going to tear the old school down and build 41 single-family homes between 2,200 and 3,200 square feet.

In a written statement, Urbancorp agrees that the developer instigated the ideas, but that it was the “YWCA which formally broke off talks.”

“Urbancorp felt equally that a transaction could not address the objectives and concerns of both parties – namely timing and the levels of risk that had to be assumed by each of the parties,” reads an e-mail sent by Ann Lam, the company’s director of development.

City funding for the Hope Shelter and Beatrice House remains available, but finding new sites will likely take years; the YWCA hopes to find a building site they can buy, as they have for four of their other shelters and permanent housing sites. “Not-for-profit housing needs to be secure in ownerships, so we’re not vulnerable to this kind of situation,” Ms. MacGregor says.

“Pressure caused by the real estate market” is one reason city council is trying to find sites for 15 new emergency shelters to be built over the next five years, says Patricia Anderson, a manager in the city’s shelter and housing division. The challenges are great. The vast majority of existing shelters are downtown, where land is priciest. Although land is cheaper outside of the core, users of the shelter system often have jobs, doctors and support services established in the communities where they’re currently housed.

City bylaws prevent new crisis centres from opening within 250 metres of each other, so it’s difficult to create new shelters in areas where they are already part of the community. But in neighbourhoods that aren’t used to shelters, residents are often resistant to having new facilities built nearby. The Cornerstone shelter reopened last March at Oakwood and Vaughan, but only over the objections of residents and local councillor Josh Colle.

“Because of stigma, many communities don’t want these services,” says Stephen Gaetz, an education professor at York University and director of the school’s Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. He says the historic concentration of social services downtown is problematic for a number of reasons: It forces suburbanites who become homeless to drift away from their families, friends and other “natural supports”; at the same time, the move of shelters to the suburbs because of cheaper real estate disrupts the lives of their downtown residents.

Mr. Gaetz would prefer to see governments focus on permanent, affordable housing rather than moving shelter beds, but he says that semi-permanent transitional housing such as that at Beatrice House can be crucial in helping people gain stability. “Women and children don’t have a lot of options,” he says. Forty per cent of the residents of Beatrice House have no income at all.

Currently, Urbancorp is not helping the YWCA relocate any of its clients, but other developers in Toronto have offered semi-happy endings: Last year, for instance, when Streetcar Developments bought the short-term stay New Broadview Hotel on Queen Street East in Riverside, it partnered with the City of Toronto and a local service organization to help 13 low-income residents find new places to live. “It would be nice if [all] developers were part of the solution,” Mr. Gaetz says. “A developer is allowed to purchase something, but how do you make sure people aren’t displaced?”

So for now, Beatrice House is closing. About 20 YWCA staff members will lose their jobs and 44 parents, some from the surrounding neighbourhood, will lose their childcare spots. Then, of course, there are the mothers and children who came here to start climbing the ladder of stability. Ms. Lewis and her staff are determined that all of them will find permanent housing before October.

“These women have really taught us about what it feels like to have your life in flux, what it means to not know what tomorrow is,” says Ms. Lewis, with tears welling in her eyes. “We’re not moving them to another shelter, that’s a big, big piece for me. That would be impossible to accept.”

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