Toronto

Neighbourhood surprised when city opens homeless warming station next to a school

Those living in the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood say they were taken by surprise when the city set up an emergency homeless shelter in a community centre attached to an elementary school there just before Christmas.

City defends location of temporary facility 'so people don't die on our streets'

Some residents say they believe the St. Lawrence Community Recreation Centre, which is attached to a school, was the wrong place in which to open a temporary shelter for the homeless. (CBC News)

Those living in the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood say they were taken by surprise when the city set up an emergency homeless shelter in a community centre attached to an elementary school there just before Christmas.

"This morning police were over at the community centre picking up needles," community activist Erin Ademoglu wrote in an email to CBC Toronto last month. "School and community centre staff have been left to sort this out without a proper plan and and guidance."

The temporary warming station opened at the St. Lawrence Community Recreation Centre, on the Esplanade, in mid-December. The centre is physically connected to Market Lane Junior and Senior Public School.

Erin Ademoglu says the city should have done a better job consulting with the community before opening the warming centre in December. (CBC News)

The warming station is scheduled to stay open until the end of February, Coun. Pam McConnell said.

The centre can hold as many as 30 people and acts only an overflow facility, meaning homeless people need to be referred there from established shelters, the Ward 28 Toronto Centre–Rosedale councillor said. 

"It's only open at 9 p.m., it's after all the community uses, really, and it's cleared by nine in the morning, because they're going somewhere else for breakfast."

As for the discovery of needles in December, McConnell said there's no evidence they came from people who'd been staying at the warming centre.

"They weren't any different than any of the needles that are being used in all of the back alleys in all of the downtown areas," she said.

Coun. Pam McConnell says the warming station is a part of the city's plan to keep the homeless safe during the extreme cold. (CBC)

Local street nurse Cathy Crowe, who lives in the neighbourhood, agreed with residents like Ademoglu who say the facility is in the wrong place.

"They should have picked a community centre that is just a community centre — not a shared facility," she said. "The city just messed up royally on this."

Crowe also said the city did a poor job of communicating its plans to residents.

"The city has not done any communicating with the media, no communication to outreach workers and no attempt to communicate with the homeless," she said. "I call it the secret warming centre."

Street nurse Cathy Crowe is calling the new homeless facility in the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood 'the secret warming centre.' (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

She has been lobbying the city to open more permanent, 24-hour shelters in its armouries at Fort York and Moss Park.

McConnell told CBC Toronto on Monday that she arranged for a meeting between city staff and residents within days of finding out that the warming centre would open.

And she defended the decision to open it in the St. Lawrence Community Recreation Centre.

"Council has made it very clear that these are facilities and programs that have to be in place to ensure that people don't die on our streets."