‘Residents are scared.’ Inside the city’s plan to turn a homeless shelter into affordable housing


Last Sunday night, Jennifer Jewell was awake into the late hours comforting her neighbours.

Inside the Bond Place Hotel, a 19-storey tower near Yonge and Dundas Square that was leased for use as a homeless shelter during the pandemic, Jewell’s neighbours were nervous about a future that seemed to be coming faster and faster.

Since March, the city had warned that it was closing down all 27 of its temporary shelters by the end of 2023. But as summer drew to a close, the plan for the Bond and its more than 200 remaining residents shifted.

The city was buying the hotel, in a $94 million transaction — but not to use it as a shelter. The plan, officials say, is to convert the suites into 280 rental units. Construction is scheduled to start in October, with a phased plan that means some people will be moved to new rooms, some will be moved into permanent housing elsewhere, and some will move to other shelters across the city.

“Residents are scared. Most of the residents if not all here have been through a lot of trauma,” said Jewell, who has been living at the Bond since Nov. 2020. She notes that people especially fear being bumped to dormitory-style shelters instead of single rooms. “This is the first time they’ve been in a shelter where they have their own privacy, where it’s safer.”

Officials know that nerves are on edge. Demand for shelter in Toronto is growing, with the homeless population at more than 9,700 people in August, up from just shy of 8,500 people the same time a year ago. And winter, when shelters have historically struggled most with demand, is looming.

But city decision-makers also believe the conversion is part of a needed shift that moves away from constantly re-upping emergency shelter spaces, and puts increased focus on building out the housing people need to leave those spaces.

“This is the kind of supply that we desperately need,” said Abi Bond, executive director of Toronto’s Housing Secretariat, calling the pivot “long overdue.” It’s an uphill climb still. The city reported last year that its rate of moving people from shelters to housing needs to be three to four times higher to free up beds.

The pitch for the Bond is a mixed-income development, to include a yet-to-be-determined percentage of deeply affordable housing — or homes with subsidies that significantly reduce the cost — with embedded support services, such as health care and food access programs.

Residents won’t be offered full kitchens, with Bond noting the cooking setup will be limited to fridges, hot plates and microwaves, though each unit will have an ensuite bathroom.

She recognizes the delicate balance the city now has to strike, in creating the supply needed for the city’s future while managing its present needs — namely, Bond said, not overstressing a shelter system that is already battling with capacity.

As of Sept. 15, she said 38 occupants were posed to move into supportive housing, and others were looking into subsidies for private rental housing. It’s unclear at this point how many of the remaining residents will be moved to other shelters.

Jewell says she found out she’d be moving into housing shortly after the purchase was announced. It’s the kind of housing she’s been waiting for — accessible, affordable, and near her medical supports downtown. She credits a housing worker from the city’s Streets to Homes team with making it happen.

In the last few weeks, Jewell says she’s seen more people housed from the Bond than ever before, but she worries some occupants are still unconnected with housing workers.

David Reycraft, director of housing services for Dixon Hall, the organization that operates the Bond shelter, acknowledges they face a crunch. “The timelines are tight,” he said. “We’ll do our best to keep as many people as possible in the hotel as the renovations begin.”

Where people have had to move, he said there was some prioritization for Bond occupants to move into other hotels instead of dorms. But the realities of the system mean there are “very few vacancies,” Reycraft added.

As previously reported by the Star, based on city data the average number of people turned away from Toronto’s homeless shelters was roughly 10 times as high in June as it was a year earlier. On the night of Sept. 14, the city’s emergency shelters were at 99.4 per cent capacity, with zero emergency men’s beds available citywide as of 4 a.m., two emergency women’s beds, four emergency beds for mixed adults and six emergency beds for youth.

Andrew Bond, medical director of the Inner City Health Associates, a group that works with the homeless population, believes this year is “uniquely complex,” given the impacts of inflation on affordability and the uncertain future of the hotels where more than 2,800 people slept last week.

The Bond is the third tourist accommodation that city officials have recently bought to convert into permanent dwelling units, following a hotel on Spadina Ave. and motel on Kingston Rd. The Commitee of Adjustment gave formal permission for the Bond conversion on Sept. 21.

In a report earlier this year, Toronto’s auditor general found the city could be putting more money toward building permanent housing by trying to recoup money overpaid to run the shelter hotels during the pandemic. Her report found those overpayments totalled $13.2 million.

Jewell agrees that the focus should be on adding housing — but questions whether the approach at the Bond will make a dent in the depth of the need for subsidized homes. As of June, more than 80,500 households were on the wait-list; for a wheelchair-accessible unit downtown, Jewell said she’d been waiting in a queue for more than two decades.

For those living in poverty, Jewell said living downtown was often a necessity to be near the places where social services clustered. “They need to do much more,” she said.

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