An Open Letter To Kristyn Wong Tam On The School House Shelter
June 5, 2012
Dear Councillor Wong Tam:
As you will be very much aware, the fifty five bed School House Shelter on George Street is presently being cleared of residents so as to close it down. As you also know, this matter will be dealt with at the June 26th meeting of the Community Development and Recreation Committee. On that day, you and the other members of the Committee will finally be called upon to take a position on this vital question. On that basis, we would like you, as the Councillor for the area in which the shelter is located, to consider very carefully what stand you will take.
Obviously, the original intention of the Hostel Services administration was to close the School House without asking for any decision by the City Council. In this regard, we acknowledge that you have certainly shown that you are ready to facilitate community input at the Committee level. However, to be blunt, people in the downtown east are not taking up this issue because they like making deputations at City Hall. They are mobilizing in their community to keep the School House open and a question that concerns them is whether or not they can count on the support of their local Councillor. As we understand it, these community members have reason for concern since it seems clear in your recent comments after the May 23rd Committee meeting, that you favour the closing of the facility.
Homelessness remains a massive problem in the life of this City and there seems little reason to expect a rapid improvement in the situation. Now, despite the housing crisis, a shelter that meets some of that need, faces closure. The potential loss is made even more serious by the fact that it is one of the very few places that permits alcohol consumption for residents who might otherwise be forced onto the streets. The reasons that are being offered for closing the School House are completely preposterous.
The shelter's harm reduction services are imperfect, it is suggested. If a better alternative were being created, this might have merit some discussion but nothing is going to be opened by way of replacement. Similarly, we are told that the building has structural problems and is inaccessible. We fail to see how the padlock you want to put on the door of the School House is going to improve accessibility.
Then, there is the proposition that housing will be found for the present residents of the School House and that this is the real solution. Experience has taught us to be very cautious about assurances that people in shelters are going to be housed in a fashion that meets their needs and ensures they remain housed. The reality is that there is insufficient housing for poor people in Toronto, and what little social housing stock there is, faces risk of being sold off by the City.
The real question to be asked at this point is, if you shut this facility with nothing to replace it, what will be there for all the others who would have utilized its services in the months and years ahead? The interests and needs of those presently in the School House are of great importance but they are not the only people in this City who will need shelter. There will now be fifty five beds less for the homeless to turn to and, for those amongst them who need a harm reduction service, their options will be virtually non-existent.
There is no question but that the thin rationalizations employed in this situation are the best that can be found to avoid admitting that the School House and those who will suffer as a result of its closing are the victims of upscale urban redevelopment. The removal of homeless shelters lays the groundwork for the developers and other vested interests. That is why the City wants to shut the doors of this shelter and no one can credibly deny it. On June 26 this matter will be before you and something very significant strikes us about the Committee you are part of. We, as much as anyone in this City, stand in opposition to the Ford Administration but the Community Services and Recreation Committee is not stacked with the Mayor’s allies, its Chairperson notwithstanding. Council members who clearly position themselves as opponents of Ford are in a clear majority and you are one of them. If you and your co thinkers vote to put a lock on the door of this shelter, there will be no blaming the Ford right wing. June 26 will be a day when you will make it very clear where you stand in a contest between the needs of homeless and poor people and those promoting an agenda of greed and profit.
We are calling on you to use your position as a City Councillor to ensure that there is no further bed loss at the School House between now and June 26. If residents leave for any reason, others must be offered the chance to stay there. We also call on you to put forward a motion on June 26 to overturn the decision of Hostel Services and keep the School House open. After June 26, the fight to defend the School House and other services in the downtown east will continue and intensify and, one way or another, it will be important for the community to know where Kristyn Wong-Tam stands in this struggle.
Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
(PDF version of this letter available here: http://ocap.ca/files/OpenLetter-WongTam20120605.pdf)