If you are not looking for it, you might miss the former Roehampton Hotel, which is pressed up against seemingly endless construction of Toronto’s light-rail line on Eglinton Avenue.
You can still see the twinkle of the defunct hotel’s chandeliers in its lobby through the windows on Mount Pleasant Avenue. Out front on a recent afternoon, a handful of its current occupants, young-looking homeless people, share a smoke, seemingly immune to the din of passing concrete trucks and a massive digging machine just steps away.
For the past two months, the city has leased this forgotten former Best Western and hastily retrofitted it as an emergency shelter. It’s one of at least 17 hotels left empty in the pandemic and taken over as city officials were forced to move thousands of homeless people out of dangerously cramped facilities and mushrooming encampments in parks to spare them from the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But unlike many other sites, the Roehampton, which has a capacity to house 174 homeless people, sits in the heart of Toronto’s Midtown, near Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue and at the centre of a cluster of affluent neighbourhoods. (Just around the corner, in a pair of soon-to-be-demolished apartment buildings on Broadway Avenue, the city had installed another 130 homeless people. But that temporary site shut down Aug. 28, a few days ahead of schedule, with some residents moved to housing but most transferred to other shelters.)
The new arrivals over the summer here have prompted an increasingly ugly kind of local culture war, in an area where neighbourhood tensions have long festered over the influx of condo towers. Fuelled by what some say is an inflammatory local Facebook page, the battle has generated duelling pro- and anti-shelter protests and a “Take Back the Night” march on Aug. 29 organized by shelter opponents.
The simmering conflict, which has forced long-time residents to face the uncomfortable realities of poverty and the opioid crisis in the middle of a pandemic, now threatens to boil over again as thousands of students are set to return to nearby schools. Northern Secondary School, just up the street, told parents in a recent e-mail that it has installed new security cameras. Some warn that the very public and at times unseemly clash over the homeless could threaten the city’s ability to expand its shelter system elsewhere in the future.
On one side are nearby homeowners who vocally oppose the shelter, citing the stabbing of a homeless man on a recent Saturday night and other incidents they link with the newcomers, such as break-ins at local businesses. (In one incident, thieves stole wine from a restaurant and defecated on its doorstep.) On the other are residents who say those privileged to already live in Midtown must welcome and help their new neighbours, not stigmatize them – with some dismissing the shelter’s critics as NIMBYs or “Karens,” a derogatory slang term for entitled middle-class white women.
Meanwhile, many who live in the area are left in the middle, saying they accept the need for the shelter but – almost apologetically – raising concerns about discarded drug needles in playgrounds or recent bike thefts.
Left out of the discussion are the shelter residents themselves. John, 47, wearing sneakers and a baseball cap, says he’s been homeless off and on for the past decade. Before getting hooked on heroin and fentanyl, he says he was a “crackhead” for 25 years, and ended up in hospital last winter with heart problems. He declined to provide his last name.
“I’ve made choices in my life. I know. I take the ownership of that,” he said. “But the rent is so unaffordable now. It’s hard to get an apartment. It’s just so hard. And like, the people protesting us being here? I’d like them to be in our shoes.”
The controversy has been compounded by the fact that city shelter officials did little to communicate with the community or even local councillors before opening the site and signing a two-year lease (with a third-year option), saying the COVID-19 emergency meant they had to act quickly. (City council had also, in 2017, already delegated more authority to shelter staff to find suitable shelter sites, in an effort to avoid drawn-out neighbourhood battles.)
The city has since held a virtual public meeting about the Roehampton shelter, clicked onto by more than 900 people, with Mayor John Tory and local councillor Josh Matlow pledging to bring in more housing workers and harm-reduction counsellors, more security and police patrols and more people to sweep schoolyards and parks for discarded needles – while pleading for the neighbourhood to show compassion for the homeless.
City officials also say they are applying for federal permission for a supervised drug consumption site at the Roehampton shelter, for use only by its residents, which could bring more of the drug use indoors.
While Toronto Police say the local division is stepping up patrols in areas where calls are increasing, spokeswoman Connie Osborne said it is “is too early to determine if there is a link between recent break-and-enters, as well as other crimes, and the shelter.”
Most days, Mr. Matlow says, when he drops by to see what’s happening out in front of the Roehampton, things are relatively quiet. But on a recent weekday afternoon, a young woman with pink and purple hair is sobbing, screaming about a thief, staggering across the road, and kicking newspaper boxes. Security guards in masks and fluorescent jackets follow her at a distance.
The councillor, wearing a grey V-neck T-shirt and a black mask and perspiring in the heat, says the shelter is the hardest issue he has faced in his 2½ terms. He himself lives just blocks away.
Like the mayor – usually a political opponent but with whom on this issue Mr. Matlow has nothing but praise – he is striking a delicate balance: Supporting the shelter itself, but taking neighbourhood concerns about it seriously and pledging to push city staff to do much more to address them. But some constituents are calling him in a rage.
“I am hearing from people I’ve known for 20 years who are frightened and are not acting their best,” Mr. Matlow said. “One by one by one, I need to, almost like a therapist, help people arrive at their best selves. … The root of it is fear. The anger is a demonstration of fear.”
He hopes tensions will ease with the shuttering of the nearby site on Broadway Avenue, where a shelter worker was also stabbed.
So far, the city’s pledges to improve things haven’t satisfied life coach Shellie Suter, who has lived in the area for 20 years. She says both she and her 75-year-old mother have been screamed at by aggressive, foul-mouthed panhandlers in the neighbourhood. After the recent stabbing – police have since arrested two of three suspects that the city says were not Roehampton residents – she says she even fears for the safety of her 6-foot-2, 19-year-old son after dark.
“We live in a city. And everyone has a place in this city, 100 per cent. But some of the residents that have been moved in are just much more aggressive in their interactions with residents than the typical people without homes that we know in the neighbourhood,” Ms. Suter said. “ … Feeling unsafe in this neighbourhood is a new thing.”
Others who live a stone’s throw from the shelter have had 180-degree different reactions.
Katarina Ohlsson, who teaches writing at Seneca College, has suggested to the city that she and a colleague could run creative-writing workshops for shelter residents. She says she doesn’t feel unsafe on her neighbourhood’s streets, and isn’t worried about the safety of her two boys, aged 12 and 14.
“I think Yonge and Eglinton used to be in a kind of a bubble, to be honest,” she said. “Yes, I have had to talk to them about needles and stuff like that. But those are useful conversations to have.”
She says Midtown needs to get used to feeling uncomfortable to do its part for the city’s most vulnerable people: “Is it comfortable to see somebody urinating in the street? No. But does that trump homes for people? No, it doesn’t.”
Rob Oliphant, a local Liberal MP, tweeted last month that the city had bungled its handling of the shelter, which is not far from his home. He found himself roundly criticized by what he called a “left-wing bandwagon” – even though as a United Church minister he worked with homeless people for years and has served on the board of an east-end family shelter.
He warns that unless the city addresses security and other concerns from residents, the situation could threaten its “social licence,” or the support it needs for efforts to help the homeless: “It’s very precarious. You can lose that social licence quickly, by not doing things well.”
Jason, 52, a resident of the Roehampton, walking by in gym clothes and carrying a garment bag, says he is grateful for his room. But he says shelter staff are overwhelmed, and that many shelter residents resent that the TVs were removed from their rooms before they moved in. A new third-floor smoking area, wedged beside a drained, fenced-off outdoor pool, resembles a “jail yard.” He declined to give his last name.
He also says he understands why some who already live in the neighbourhood are upset about the shelter, acknowledging that the number of drug users inside the hotel naturally draws dealers to the area.
“The city dropped the ball with this place by not having open discussions, without doubt,” he said. “Because all of a sudden, the community feels slighted. And so instead of there being communication and co-operation, the community really needed to vent.”
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