Catholic board offers city an unused downtown school as shelter space - at no charge

The Toronto Catholic District School Board is offering to hand over an entire downtown school to the city - for free - provided it's used as a shelter.

3,300 sq. metre school could be retrofitted if neighbours agree

Toronto Catholic District School Board spokesperson John Yan says this mothballed school near Dundas Street West and Dufferin Street is being offered to the city for free as a shelter. (Mike Smee/CBC)

The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) is offering to hand over an entire downtown school to the city — for free — provided it's used as a shelter.

Three months after the offer was made, city council hasn't yet formally accepted, the board says. But TCDSB spokesperson John Yan says he's confident a deal will be reached eventually.

"It's just timing," he told CBC Toronto. "We're in the middle of a municipal election ... Our belief is they'll move on it as soon as city council is reconvened after the election."

The offer comes as Toronto has been experiencing an influx of refugee claimants, including approximately 800 who were housed in two college residences before students returned to classes. The federal government is giving Toronto $11 million to help it deal with the situation.

The school — St. Veronica Catholic School near Dufferin and Dundas streets — has been empty for most of the past 15 years. It's been used only occasionally, to teach students who've been displaced from their home schools by renovations and rebuilds.

Coun. Ana Bailao is insisting the community be consulted before an offer from the TCDSB is finalized. (Paul Smith/CBC)

The three-story building housed as many as 350 pupils in its heyday, but it became obsolete in 2003.  It would need to be retrofitted for use as a shelter, but Yan said it's an ideal candidate.

"It is empty, it's about 36,000 square feet, it's on three floors, it has 21 classrooms, it has a gym. So it can be retrofitted into useable accommodation space for people who need it."

The board's offer is in response to a plea from the city back in June. They called on other institutions to scour their inventories for properties that could be suitable for use as shelter space to help house an influx of refugees.

St. Veronica's hasn't been used regularly by the TCDSB since 2003, and the board believes it could easily be turned into a homeless shelter. (Mike Smee/CBC News)

Coun. Ana Bailao, who also chairs the city's affordable housing committee, says she's been in contact with city staff about the St. Veronica's offer, and other potential shelter sites.

But she said no final decision will be made until she's heard what the community has to say.

"I was very clear that as soon as it becomes a real possibility that we also have a conversation with the community and with my office, right away."

Yan says compassion sparked the board's decision to offer the mothballed property to the city for free.

"This city and the people and our board have had a history of helping those in need," he said. "We don't have too many facilities we can offer up, but when we were asked to answer the call, we did."

Bailao agrees the need right now is great

'Look at all options'

"When a city is going through the crisis we've been going through in the last few months, we have to look at all our options in a responsible way," she said.

"And I think St. Veronica's could be looked at in that way, absolutely. But it has to be done with our division, with our communities and with the needs of the school board." 

City staff wouldn't agree to an interview, but a city spokesperson responded with an emailed statement. 

"Although the City has not finalized and executed an agreement, we have negotiated the major terms of the offer with TCDSB and expect to complete the final, remaining details very soon," the email reads. 

"As you may know, the City is experiencing unprecedented demand on the shelter system and we are taking all necessary steps to ensure that there are adequate contingency measures in place, should additional space be required. Our interest in St. Veronica's school was borne out of this need," the statement continues.

If the use of St. Veronica's does become necessary, the City will notify and engage with the community surrounding the school."   

About the Author

Michael Smee

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Michael Smee has worked in print, radio, TV and online journalism for many years.