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Empty shelves can be seen inside the Salvation Army thrift store on Parliament Street in Toronto's Regent Park area, on April 17, 2018.Cole Burston//Cole Burston

Faced with a rent hike, the Salvation Army thrift store in Toronto’s Regent Park, which sees the highest use of customer vouchers in Canada, has no choice but to close next month.

In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the 252 Parliament St. location gave out approximately $450,000 in goods through the program, which allows some customers to use vouchers to purchase items such as clothing and small household necessities, rather than having to pay out of pocket.

It’s a resource the community values greatly.

“We need to be there. We want to be there,” says Michele Walker, director of retail operations with the Salvation Army thrift store division.

The store, now featuring a sign stating “retail/office for lease,” will close May 12.

Ms. Walker says their lease is up, and after attempting to negotiate a rent increase they could handle, they were given notice to vacate the premises by the landlord.

“We’re not actually trying to leave the community. We’re quite disappointed to be leaving at this time,” Ms. Walker says.

Daniel Odorico, president of the Downing Street Group, the company that owns the property as of about a year ago, says they attempted to come to an agreement that made sense for both groups, but it wasn’t possible.

“Their lease had already expired. We let them stay on until we saw that we weren’t coming to an arrangement, and then we gave them notice,” Mr. Odorico said.

Groups within the community that have been making use of the voucher program aren’t happy to see it go.

Sojourn House provides emergency shelter and transitional housing services to refugees, and is only a few blocks away from the closing store.

Debbie Hill-Corrigan, executive director of Sojourn House, says the proximity of the store and the voucher program are an asset to the work they do helping refugees to get on their feet with items such as kitchen utensils, curtains and bedding.

“They could go up the street and pick out the things they need and then take them with them to their new home,” she said. “They have something to start with.”

Some individuals in the community value the program as well.

Carmie Hudson has lived in the area for 25 years and has been shopping at the Salvation Army thrift store since it opened 15 years ago. She goes to the store for everything, including her son’s uniforms, children’s clothing, bedding and towels.

Ms. Hudson says she was shocked when she heard about the store closing through a friend.

“I automatically knew that it was going to change my life,” she says. “I think this is a staple … this is a necessity, especially in this area, because there are a lot of people like myself that are living below the poverty line. We are going to be missing out on something that is essential for us.”

Photographer Chris McCallan, 56, recalls purchasing a vintage Zeiss Ikon folding camera at the Salvation Army thrift store years ago. Last week, he bought an old Russian telescope for bird spotting for $5.

Despite not living in the area, Mr. McCallan has been shopping at the store for six years. He says the store is located in a rough neighbourhood but the prices are about 50 per cent less than at other stores.

“I see people going in there and I can tell that they’re not well off and I see how they’re treated and it’s nicely, its good,” he says. “That sort of much more friendly atmosphere, it’s disappearing, and this particular store was one of the best examples of a place that people can go get that good price and be treated nicely.”

Mr. McCallan adds that he remembers when thrift stores first started and were advertised as a humane kind of department store. He says the Regent Park location reminds him of one of those original thrift stores meant to help low-income people.

“It’s a neighbourhood hangout; it’s a neighbourhood icon. And it’s not just an icon – it’s a place that serves people.”

Ms. Walker says they are actively looking for a new location in the neighbourhood, but have not yet been able to find one. They’re hoping members of the area keep in contact with them and let them know of any potential locations.

“Our hope is to remain within Regent Park,” she says. “This location in particular did a lot of really good work for the community. If it were up to us, it certainly wouldn’t be the way we would want to go.”

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