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Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Clarkson back plans for new Toronto homeless shelter in Annex area

City Councillor Joe Cressy, shown in this file photo, announced plans for the new shelter at City Hall while flanked by former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson. He also read a message of support from author Margaret Atwood.

File Photo

City Councillor Joe Cressy has unveiled plans for a city homeless shelter in Toronto's wealthy Annex area, after lining up two of the neighbourhood's most prominent residents to show their support.

City officials say they are in talks to buy a four-storey building on Davenport Road near Dupont Street and plan to turn it into a 90-bed shelter – one of several new facilities the city is scrambling to set up to alleviate crowding in its shelter system.

On Thursday, Mr. Cressy announced the plans at City Hall while flanked by former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson. He also read a message of support from author Margaret Atwood, who he said was in Britain and unable to attend in person.

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"We should realize that everybody is a citizen in our city," Ms. Clarkson, who lives just around the corner, told reporters. "And we need to help those that are the most vulnerable."

The building at 348 Davenport Rd., which had been a rug shop in the past, will first be opened on Saturday as one of the city's rudimentary "winter respite" facilities. But officials say it will close April 15 and then be renovated into a permanent shelter.

While the vice-president of the large Annex Residents' Association, Albert Koehl, says he supports the shelter, another group in the neighbourhood, the Davenport Triangle Residents Association (DATRA), is up in arms, saying it should have been consulted.

The two-year-old group, which says it has at least 50 members, slammed the shelter plan in a response addressed to Mr. Cressy and printed in its newsletter: "Our general objection is that The Annex has more than its share of 'social problem' housing and it is time for the rest of the City to share the burden."

One of the association's directors, Nigel Napier-Andrews, 75, said on Thursday that he and residents were "blindsided" by news of the shelter and are worried that an influx of homeless people could cause an increase in crime. He said workers have already been retrofitting the building, which backs onto a laneway behind his house, for weeks.

"My neighbour has just pulled out in his Tesla. I can't imagine he is very happy at the thought that somebody might, out of, let's say jealousy, or whatever, feel obliged to graffiti his car," Mr. Napier-Andrews said in an interview. "And I am driving a Mercedes. Will I leave this on the lane? No I will not."

Mr. Napier-Andrews, who said he volunteers at a program for the homeless and supports services for them, also accused Mr. Cressy of enlisting Ms. Clarkson and Ms. Atwood to support the shelter to bolster his position as he prepares for re-election later this year.

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Mr. Cressy showed little sympathy for DATRA's opposition: "For those who say 'not in my backyard,' I say, find another backyard, because everybody has a right to live in the Annex."

Mr. Cressy said the city could not hold public consultations on the shelter location because it could not reveal a property it was in the process of buying. He also said that communities cannot veto shelters under the city's process. City officials would not reveal the price paid until the deal is finalized, but said the shelter and its operation costs were already in the city's budget.

Toronto has been trying to open more shelters across the city as demand has risen and it prepares to tear down one of its oldest downtown facilities. A cold snap in December forced the city to scramble to open more emergency respite centres for those on the street.

Finding new shelter locations has been difficult. City bureaucrats have scouted scores of potential locations, but have found very few sites deemed suitable. And when the city does find what it deems a suitable location, controversy usually erupts.

Last year, residents protested the selection of a building on Runnymede Road in the city's west end for a new shelter, but council later approved the site and has launched a review of how shelter sites are selected.

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