At its April 26th meeting Toronto City Council approved a new engagement process to introduce new homeless shelters to the community.
It was needed.
Under the old system, hundreds of people would show up at public meetings under the mistaken impression that they were being asked whether they wanted a shelter near them.
The shelters usually went ahead: municipally-funded homeless shelters are an as-of-right use anywhere in the City, as long as they are or an arterial road, more than 250 meters away from another homeless shelter and meet the other zoning requirements of the site. But the price was angry neighbours, stigmatized homeless people, and a City budget loaded with, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars in “appeasements” to the community.
Shelters as a public asset
The City’s new engagement process is based on Bruce Davis’ Engaging Communities in First Step Housing and Services. Davis was the consultant who developed Red Door Shelter’s successful outreach initiative that replaced the usual public notification with an invitation to “show what a compassionate community looks like,” and substituted a welcome party for the usual public meeting.
The report recognizes shelters as an important public service. Far from “warehouses,” they are service centres that help residents find and keep a permanent home. It also calls for authentic engagement that, as the Council motion says, “make it clear that the site is not subject to public approval, but that the public’s help is needed to make these services a success.”
The Council motion calls for a multi-step process, starting with an annual plan for new shelters across the city. Where service gaps have been identified, local residents’ associations, BIAs, faith groups, service providers and other stakeholders will be engaged in identifying local needs and assets. Once a site is approved, the City would engage a third-party facilitator to organize open houses, charrettes, focus groups or any other strategy to engage the community in the shelter’s success.
The real test: better shelters and more of them
HomeComing believes the City’s new engagement strategy could go a long way to ending discriminatory practices. But the real success will come when new shelters are created all across the City.
Over the past few years, Toronto’s real estate market has made it extremely difficult to find shelter sites anywhere in Toronto that are 1) available, 2) suitable, 3) zoned and 4) affordable. The Salvation Army searched for over two years to find a site to replace its Hope Shelter. Cornerstone Shelter had a similar experience. The Runnymede shelter was finally approved last October, but with half the beds originally proposed, and no plan to replace the 50 lost beds.
The City’s new process is a good one, but it could also be a slow one. It will take continued leadership from the City to keep up the momentum, do the groundwork and ensure that homeless Torontonians have more and better options. They are needed!