Back in November 2015, Toronto Star columnist Edward Keenan wrote, “If you’re in the mood to have your faith in the human spirit stomped on, I suggest spending your evening at a community meeting discussing a proposed homeless shelter.”
He was writing about the public consultation to relocate the Birchmount Men’s Residence, a transitional home for older, often frail, formerly homeless men. But he could have been writing about the public meetings leading up to the Cornerstone Shelter at Oakwood and Vaughan, the proposed City shelter on Runnymede, or any number of similar meetings that show civic life at its worst.
It doesn’t have to be this way
When the Red Door Shelter prepared to relocate to a temporary home on Gerrard Street East, it made a deliberate effort to bring out the best in its future neighbours.
Like other Toronto shelters, Red Door did not need its neighbours’ permission to occupy its new site. City-funded shelters are as-of-right uses, provided they are on an arterial road, at least 250 meters from another shelter, and meet the normal zoning requirements of the site.
So instead of hosting a fractious town hall, the Red Door organized an “open house and celebration” at their new location. A flyer hand-delivered to local homes and businesses offered the invitation, “Let’s show what a caring community looks like.” Locals were invited to sign a welcome banner, donate household items or make a financial donation.
At the event itself, Red Door and City staff were on hand to answer questions. But it was more like a party than a meeting. For most of the 60 or so visitors, it was a chance look at the displays, sign the banner, chat with the local Councillor, MP and MPP, and eat a “Welcome to the neighbourhood” cake donated by the local BIA.
Why can’t it be like this all the time?
Some people who hear of the Red Door’s success say, “Ah, but that is a family shelter. It would be different if it were a men’s shelter.”
We’re not so sure. Ten years ago, the Red Door attempted to relocate at Broadview and Danforth. Riverdale residents – from a neighbourhood usually thought of as progressive — lined up at a divisive public meeting to voice their opposition.
Contrast this experience to WoodGreen’s New Edwin Hotel — transitional housing for older homeless men much like the Birchmount Men’s Residence. WoodGreen skipped the public meeting and held an open house instead. The event was packed with well-wishers, and a local real estate agent heralded the project as a “positive addition to Riverside and south Riverdale.”
The trouble with meetings
The problem isn’t shelters. Most are widely accepted once they settle in, even by neighbours who initially opposed them. The problem is meetings that create a platform for all sorts of prejudices and fears, divide communities and – understandably! – frustrate participants when they discover the shelter is a “done deal.”
Last December, Councillors Ana Bailao and Paula Fletcher hosted a charette to find a better way to introduce homeless shelters to the neighbourhood. HomeComing was there, along with experts in planning, communications and community engagement. We have high hopes!