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The front reception area of the new Assessment and Referral Centre (ARC) and 40-bed emergency shelter at 129 Peter Street in the downtown core of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The new facility designed by architect Brock James of Levitt Goodman Architects Ltd. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
The front reception area of the new Assessment and Referral Centre (ARC) and 40-bed emergency shelter at 129 Peter Street in the downtown core of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The new facility designed by architect Brock James of Levitt Goodman Architects Ltd. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

A homeless shelter - in the club district Add to ...

This week a facility I consider more enlightened than swanky opened its doors, its counselling desks and its 40 beds. Designed to coax the homeless from living hard on Toronto's streets and into permanent housing, the City of Toronto's Streets to Homes Assessment and Referral Centre is a renovation and addition to a former dance club, one of the many that line downtown Richmond Street West. If Toronto is serious about pushing forward as a 21st-century city of freedom, tolerance and equality, this is the right kind of outreach facility at exactly the right place.

For too long, dance club owners along Richmond West have managed to push away the complex needs of a city to lay exclusive claim to a downtown neighbourhood. Single-use zones are what define the monotonous look and feel of the suburbs. In a big, complex city like Toronto there's no room for that kind of thinking. The club district - and its party girls and boys - need to move over and share the city, day and night.

Designed with humanity by Levitt Goodman Architects and constructed and outfitted for $6.6-million, the referral centre is a modest renovation of a club purchased three years ago by the city for $4.7-million. (The total cost of more than $11-million has stirred much controversy, during the election and beyond).

Natural light floods the facility. Where possible, the architects have warmed up the space with wood, maintaining existing hardwood floors, using thick wooden stairs - rather than rubber strips on metal - and creating a Douglas Fir-clad central staircase that pops up onto the rooftop.

The rooftop, still under construction, had been envisioned as a place of extensive greenery and sculpturally designed solar panels. Vines were to trail down the south and west facades. Instead, an unfortunate pumpkin-coloured stucco now defines the simple building box. Nothing has been done to beautify the squalid-looking public space in front of 129 Peter Street - a missed opportunity. A minimal amount of green sedum is to be planted on the centre's rooftop next to concrete pavers; residents will use the space as a safe public commons and smoking area, especially at night when the club district heats up, crowds form and confrontation between police and clubbers is not uncommon.

On the second floor, there is a men's dormitory of 40 beds, and a smaller one for women. Several semi-private rooms for couples are also provided. White-tiled private showers and washrooms are available at both the second and basement levels. And there are computer stations to help connect clients back into society and for such urgent issues as job searches.

The mandate of the centre, to serve the specific needs of the hardest-to-home, is admirable, though obviously difficult to enforce. People who are regularly staying in the shelter system will be screened by city staff, and because the new facility is intended for those coming in for the first time from sidewalks and under bridges, will not be eligible to use these sleeping spaces.

But, given the dreary state of most of the city's homeless shelters, there will surely be tremendous jostling among many to qualify for a bed in the new sunlit centre.

My issues with the design have to do with the metal vertical spikes on the railing balustrades - unfortunately, they resemble bars in prisons - and with the white, curvy Herman Miller seating in the ground floor lounge, solid to be sure, but an expensive selection.

It would be wrong to judge the new referral centre as an isolated instance of social justice. Levitt Goodman Architects won a prestigious Governor-General's Medal in Architecture for the dramatic design of Strachan House, for which they integrated a brick chimney and configured a sort of town hall for the shelter's clients. It was constructed for approximately the same budget back in 1996 as the 129 Peter Street facility. The masterful redevelopment of Regent Park, the country's largest social housing experiment when first constructed in the 1940s, is fully under way in Toronto's east end, allowing low-income people to feel that they actually belong to the rest of the city. These are the kinds of projects that begin to raise Toronto to the same high level of progressive housing as Amsterdam.

Now, if the city could only provide highly efficient, cheap public transit we could begin to call ourselves New World Europeans.

Bed count

There are about 3,800 permanent emergency shelter beds in the system in 57 locations, including nine locations operated by the city and 48 sites operated by 30 community not-for-profit agencies. The 2009 occupancy was about 94 per cent on average for single adults and youth.

The family shelter system has no fixed capacity due to arrangements with motels.

The Out of the Cold program is largely funded by the city and delivered by volunteers at 19 synagogues, churches and faith communities. On average there are 125 additional sleeping places a night, mid-November to mid-April.

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