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Formerly a underused community housing apartment, the 1970s complex will soon become the new Egale Centre.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

You wouldn’t have noticed it anyhow, but don’t look out for the buff brick, 1870s heritage home at 270 Dundas St. E. It’s been taken down and won’t be rebuilt until spring.

Formerly an underutilized Toronto Community Housing Corp. apartment with a sturdy, 1970s red-brick addition running south along Pembroke Street, the complex was the “epitome of drab,” architect Paul Dowsett says. “I like to think that we’re going from drab to fab.”

Yes, the new Egale Centre will indeed be fabulous when it opens toward the end of 2019, but, sadly, it may fill up quickly. The Egale Centre, you see, will be Canada’s first “specific housing facility” that welcomes homeless youth who identify as LGBTIQ2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer, questioning and Two Spirit), executive director Helen Kennedy says.

“We want to make it a showcase,” she continues, “but at the same time, I’m very conscious that I’m spending other people’s money, so we have to make sure that we’re getting a very efficient building, and we’re getting a home for these youth, and it’s good value for money, and I absolutely think we are going to meet those three criteria.

A rendering of the new Egale Centre, which will be Canada’s first specific housing facility that welcomes homeless youth who identify as LGBTIQ2S.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

“I’m very excited about it.”

Mr. Dowsett is excited, also. Selected as design architect a few years ago, his firm, Sustainable, is partnering with heavyweights Daniels Corp. as project managers and interior designers Yabu Pushelberg to see the dream of Egale Centre become reality.

Ms. Kennedy, who was part of the team that saw gay marriage legalized in 2005, explains that the idea for a centre came out of a study Egale Human Rights Trust conducted in 2012; while it was already known that a large percentage of street youth identified as members of the LGBTQ community, it was still a surprise to see the figure of 23 per cent pop up (this, she adds, doesn’t include couch-surfers or those living dangerously close to being kicked out of their homes).

The other thing Egale learned was that the traditional shelter system just wasn’t cutting it, since these kids were being “further victimized and attacked” there. After approaching then-chief executive of TD Bank Ed Clark – who became a “driving force” behind the project – it was decided in 2014 that a drop-in/crisis centre would open “so we could really get to know what the issues were, and how to address [them] through this housing piece,” Ms. Kennedy says.

When the first 1,500-square-foot drop-in centre quickly proved too small, Egale moved to a 2,300-square-foot facility at 290 Shuter St.; today, with an average of 20 new kids visiting a month, finishing touches are being put to the third crisis centre, a 7,000-square-foot basement space at 489 Queen St. E.

Finding a suitable place to build the transitional housing centre has been just as trying. After viewing empty lots and considering building new, the team looked for surplus buildings, such as schools or churches, until they came upon the TCHC property, which was “such a mess, in such disrepair,” Ms. Kennedy says. Once the 49-year lease was signed, the team began their research.

Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Renderings of the new facility. When Egale asked youth for input about the new centre, they requested simple things, such as the ability to control the temperature on a shower or a place to put their shoes.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

Since there are only nine such facilities in the world, directors from a few were invited to Toronto to make presentations. Selecting the Portland, Ore., and New York centres as good models, some Egale members travelled to those cities to learn more.

Back in Toronto, a charrette was held at the drop-in centre to get input from the street youth themselves. “That was a real eye-opener for us,” Ms. Kennedy says. “I kind of expected to hear ‘a jacuzzi on the roof,’ but all they wanted was very simple things like to be able to control the temperature on a shower [and] a place to put their shoes; it was really, really interesting, and it was very emotional.”

Mr. Dowsett, standing on Pembroke Street admiring the shell of the 1970s apartment building, gets emotional also: “It’s something that resonates, because it could’ve been me,” he says. “I was a hair’s breadth away from being one of the kids who needed this sort of support.” Mr. Dowsett, who came from a military family, says his sexual orientation wasn’t discussed openly until after his father died.

To lighten things up, Mr. Dowsett switches to the architecture he’s been charged with retrofitting. He points to long recesses in the red brick between window openings: “I just love that little detail,” he says of architect Jerome Markson’s work (Mr. Markson, now 89-years-old, retired a few years ago). “If we tore this down and rebuilt it, would we built those details again? No, that would be, No. 1, value engineering gone; we’d never get that back,” he says.

Certain features will be retrofitted, including the long recesses in the red brick between window openings.Dave LeBlanc/The Globe and Mail

As well as the heritage home and Mr. Markson’s 1970s building, Egale Centre will feature a brand new, ‘linking’ building designed by Sustainable. To unify the three disparate parts, rainbow-coloured fins will provide sun-shading as well as a visual punch, and a Galvalume roof will travel along all roofs and some exterior walls. The barrier-free interiors will provide private bedrooms for about 30 transitioning youth, a communal kitchen, dining room, lounge and a study space. Mineral wool insulation will keep things warm while operable windows will cool when necessary; there will be LED lighting, a green roof and solar panels and zero VOC finishes.

“We on the design and construction crew have all taken it to heart that we’re treating this [building] with the same kind of care that those youth should be treated with once they come to the facility,” Mr. Dowsett says.

"The response has been incredible,” Ms. Kennedy says. “However, we need more; the problem is not going away and we’re not going to solve this problem by just having 30 units.”

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