The Schoolhouse Shelter, A Pioneer Lost

ImageIn cities all around the developed world, it is recognized that low-income earners and their families usually live in the downtown core of those cities, and that wealthier citizens prefer the space, privacy, and relative quiet of the suburbs.  However, in Toronto and other urban areas, there has been a reversal of this trend. One glance at the Toronto skyline will show that there is a booming market for high-rise condominiums, marketed to the professional middle-class who want to live close to where they work rather than commute to and from the suburbs.  [scroll down for Schoolhouse statement by Jessica Hales, RN]

The existing scarcity of affordable housing in the downtown core, is now being further challenged by the competing interests of condo developers and their more economically and politically-powerful clientele.


Shelters, rooming houses, and entire housing developments (like Regent Park, Canada’s oldest) are being downsized, closed, sold, torn down and “revitalized” into more attractive, and more expensive, accommodations that are well beyond the reach of the poorest families.  Agencies and services that once catered to the needs of marginalized populations are also at risk due to under-funding, decreased community support, and sprawling gentrification.

Gentrification is a gradual, though deliberate, process where higher income earners move into an area, forcing up rent, property values, quality of services (i.e. nice restaurants), and police and security presence…after a decade or two you lose all the affordable housing, low income populations and the services upon which they rely.

In the downtown east side of Toronto, where our clients live, there is another threat to the safety and health outcomes of this vulnerable population with the proposed closure of The Schoolhouse Shelter.  The Schoolhouse, originally opened in 1978, is a men’s shelter with 55 beds that employed a rarely-practiced harm-reduction approach to serving homeless men who struggle with alcohol use issues.  Community members were initially invited to Toronto City Hall on May 23rd, 2012 to make deputations to the city’s Community Development and Recreation Committee, a meeting that was abruptly cancelled without explanation, and postponed to June 26th.

Several staff members from Street Health were in attendance at this meeting:  Maurice Adongo spoke on behalf of Street Health; RN Beth Pelton spoke for the Street Nurses Network; others attended to help demonstrate the sheer number of those concerned. Despite the attendance and passionate, informed opinions of countless community stakeholders, city councillors voted to close The Schoolhouse and reallocate the ‘savings’ into other shelter programs, with no assurances that other programs would exist in this area or practice a harm reduction approach.

Jessica Hales, Street Health Nurse, collaborated with our Community Mental Health Team to identify the direct effects this shelter closure could have on our clients, and outlined the likely negative health outcomes of being thus displaced from social supports and community resources.  She then prepared the following statement for the original May 23rd meeting:

The School House shelter is one of two in Toronto that practice harm reduction by providing a safe environment for men who consume alcohol. These men would otherwise be drinking outdoors leading to an increased risk of injury, freezing to death or suffering from the many other health risks of sleeping outdoors such as heat stroke, infection, harassment, violence and exacerbation of chronic illnesses.

As we know, substance use is a serious health concern and the city presently lacks supportive housing and shelters that practice harm reduction and adequately serve the needs of this population. This may be why many residents were housed at the shelter for a long period of time.

Individuals suffering from mental health issues or addictions often face challenges in maintaining housing when adequate supports are not in place. It is a concern that the individuals who were housed in the community will lack the supports needed to maintain their housing and may lose critical support networks if moved outside of the downtown core. The closing of the shelter will mean the loss of a valuable housing option and emergency shelter space for men who consume alcohol in the downtown east area of Toronto.

When considering the cost of health risks associated with sleeping outdoors or in an unsupportive housing environment the repairs needed to maintain the shelter will still result in an overall savings to taxpayers. The per diem of $46.50 per occupied bed that the shelter receives may be compared to:

The cost of one night in:

-an average emergency shelter:      $52.30

-a psychiatric hospital:                   $665

-an acute care bed:                        $1048

Or one:

-ambulance ride:                           $785

-ER visit:                                      $212

Closing this shelter will cost taxpayers money. The possible loss of the school house is part of a trend of dwindling resources in the downtown core. The poor and vulnerable are literally being pushed to the margins, away from resources and supports. This safe, supportive living environment is a critical need in a city short of other appropriate services for marginalized groups. We urge you to adequately fund the Schoolhouse shelter and keep it’s current location in the downtown core.

-Jessica Hales, R.N., BScN–toronto-shelters-why-mess-with-success