Messaging around homeless shelters changing in a neighbourhood near you

April 13, 2017

Recently, when an emergency shelter opens in a new neighbourhood, the message from local residents is clear that homeless people are not welcome. “It can get pretty bad. Screaming. Yelling, ‘We don’t like this,’ ” Councillor Paula Fletcher told Signal Toronto about the current town hall process used to let communities know of the change. “It seems to bring out the worst in people. Our model has just basically [been to] put some gasoline down and throw a match on it in the past, which hasn’t worked for anybody.”

The issue is set to become even bigger, with more and more shelters set to relocate because of the effects of soaring real estate prices. “Our big problem now is the displacement of up to 15 shelters in the next five years, and that’s a byproduct of a real estate market that has gone through the roof, and the people we rent from want to sell.” Chair of Community Development and Recreation Committee James Pasternak said after the meeting. “This is a big problem in cities which have skyrocketing real estate prices. How do you provide affordable real estate, how do you provide shelters, when the land is so expensive, you’re behind by millions of dollars before you’ve put in one brick? So we rent. On occasion we buy, but for the most part we’re enormously displaced by our landlords wanting us to leave.”

In response, the city is moving forward with a pilot project that aims to use a different communication approach to tell residents that municipal shelters are moving into their neighbourhood. Information about the need for a new shelter in the city will come from school principals, faith leaders, and local businesses (and not just city staff and councillors), and will start earlier in the process.

Currently, residents find out about new shelters through communication similar to when a building is rezoned. There’s a flyer, local advertising and then a local meeting. Residents come to city hall when the issue is before a committee to explain all the reasons they don’t want it, even though they don’t have a choice. The new process will try and curb any confusion from the get go.

Councillor Joe Cressy says he’s had experience with both extremes of resident protests and support for shelters in his downtown ward. He understands that change can be hard because it’s personal, but at the end of the day it’s about empathy. “Not in my backyard is not a sufficient reason not to build a caring city – full stop,” Cressy said after the committee meeting. When asked how awkward those conversations can get, the councillor was candid for a moment. “You just have to be upfront.”

“That’s why I believe you educate and do outreach and you build community so that people understand the situations, because that’s where empathy comes from – [it] is from understanding and education and that’s why it serves such an important and vital purpose,” Cressy went on.  “But if at the end of education and outreach and engagement people still say, well that’s all fine – that’s not an acceptable answer. If the answer to shelters is, ‘We think they’re great just not on my street,’ well that’s not an acceptable answer.”

Fletcher is optimistic about the potential for a better response. “Look at the response to Syrian refugees, how many groups have come together to sponsor a family. I think people will come together to look for locations in order to help people.”

Recommendations for the project include the city exploring what incentives might look like for developers. When asked for an example, Fletcher uses the example of the Red Door Family Shelter in Leslieville. “I have one where the Red Door’s going, temporarily, for the relocation until the condo gets built… There’s a seventh floor on that development in order to accommodate the Red Door, so that would be a real estate incentive that you can meet some of our needs, you may get some extra density, I think that’s a good way to go.”