Is the word "shelter" poison to some Torontonians?

Coun. Paula Fletcher, who listened to hours of citizens' deputations against shelters moving to their neighbourhoods while she served on the community development and recreation committee, thinks it might just be.

"It gets some people pretty negative," she told CBC Toronto.

As a city committee prepares to look at plans to open six new shelters and relocate seven more, Fletcher and other councillors are hoping a name change may start to chip away at the perception that shelters spell bad news for neighbourhoods.

Torontonians now have until Dec. 12 to pitch ideas for a new name in an online survey.

The goal, said Fletcher, is to look at what would "make the names more welcoming, more fitting into the community, and have people not be so afraid of the word 'shelter.'"

Word 'doesn't really fit anymore'

Coming up with a new name is just one piece of a larger engagement plan to get the public on side with the building and relocation of shelters in the city.

Through advertising campaigns and public meetings, the hope is to break down the attitudes behind episodes like this one, when residents of Oakwood Village protested against a men's shelter moving there, in part on the grounds that criminal activity could return to their area.

That shelter, called Cornerstone Place, is now open on Vaughan Road.

Cornerstone Place

Cornerstone Place at 616 Vaughan Rd. in Toronto has the capacity to house 50 men over the age of 25. (Google Maps)

It's not the first time the city has taken steps to tackle anti-shelter sentiment. It rolled out an awareness campaign targeting latent Toronto NIMBYism with posters showing people saying things like "I support homeless shelters … that are far, far away from where I live."

But mulling a move away from the word "shelter" is about more than just sidestepping negativity, says Kira Heineck, project lead of the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness.

Heineck, whose organization collaborated with the city on the NIMBY ads, said a new name could be used to reflect a new direction being taken by Toronto.

City of Toronto banner

The City of Toronto and the Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness launched a public awareness campaign in April aiming to debunk myths around homelessness. (Toronto Alliance to End Homelessness)

"The new city plan is to create centres that are much more about helping people find housing," she said. "The word shelter doesn't really fit anymore."

That's why Heineck favours a new term that focuses on a pathway to permanent housing and stresses that shelters are a "community resource and a positive thing."  

"I like the language of housing services or a housing service system," she said.

The limits of language

"What's more important," said Heineck, "is that the new model is going to focus on more individualized help for people to find housing."

Mark Horvath, a formerly homeless man who founded Invisible People, an online platform that tells the stories of homeless people in the U.S. and Canada, told CBC Toronto that while language does make a difference, he'd like effort funnelled directly to getting people out of the cold.

li-mark-horvath-460

Mark Horvath, who lived on the street in Los Angeles for a time, says language does make a difference, but not to people sleeping in the cold. (Mark Horvath)

Reducing the stigma of homelessness, he said, can only come through a broad education campaign.

"There needs to be more education focused on the general public to reduce the stigma … changing a phrase isn't going to do it," said Horvath.

Using language to change public attitude, though, can be powerful, argues Fletcher.

She recalled that in 2010, Woodgreen Community Services opened First Step To Home, which houses homeless seniors, noting that Woodgreen communicated with the community first.  

"The work they did ahead of time resulted in a housewarming party, by the community, for these men, where everything was donated for the new apartment. That's the Toronto I'm trying to reach out to," she said.