R.I.P. Seaton House: Toronto’s George Street Revitalization Project

Robert St. Pierre

The winter always hits so hard, and it does so for all Canadians. From the sun setting at what seems to be 3 PM everyday until the spring, to heavy snowfall apparently trying to prevent us all from getting us where we need to be, Canadian winters batter us on so many levels: emotional, physical, spiritual. Yet many take pride in their resilience to prosper through it – I mean, the national institute of health even reported a study last year that found shivering to be a catalyst for producing heat and burning calories.

In all seriousness though, sadly, not everyone does make it through – coldness kills, and according to Toronto’s Shelter Administration, a minimum of 30 homeless people died on the streets in 2014. Feeling a personal sense of achievement come springtime for having made it through is certainly one measure of a successful winter. However, shouldn’t the ultimate gage of success in this regard be re-emerging in the spring, feeling assured that everyone else in Toronto made it through too?

This question is of some import at this time, given that winter is right around the corner, but especially in light of last week’s city council vote to move forward with the George Street Revitalization Project, for which there were 32 yes votes and 0 no votes. The result was widely expected, as the city has targeted the downtown east as being in need of “revitalization”. Nevertheless, the outcome was met with much disdain to 200 anti-poverty demonstrators who occupied the 2nd floor rotunda at City Hall that day.

The reason for their disdain is that this particular project will see the Seaton House, one of Toronto’s oldest and largest homeless shelters, torn down to make way for a new multi-purpose building. According to the City of Toronto Housing and Homelessness Services, the project will include:

  • a long-term care home with 378 beds
  • a 100-bed emergency shelter for men
  • an innovative “assisted living” service for men and women who need more care than traditional supportive housing can provide, but less than what a long-term care home involves
  • a service hub for program clients as well as members of the surrounding community
  • affordable housing with supports,

On face value, none of these proposals seem to lack merit. As well, the Seaton house has come under scrutiny for bringing drug users and dealers into the neighbourhood. Of course, revitalizing is not without social costs though. The Seaton House presently has 543 beds, and is able to house up to 700 people at any given time. In comparison to the above proposed figures, this represents a shortfall of 443 beds, which have historically been there for older homeless men. There is mention of affordable [to whom?] housing, but no mention of where or how this shortfall will be made up in the city.

Going through with this revitalization, it is probable that not all residents sheltered there will find alternative housing arrangements. It has been duly noted that it is remarkably difficult to keep track of homeless deaths – but given that at least 740 homeless people have died on the streets since 1985, is any shortfall in beds really justifiable? What’s more is that this figure is in all likelihood a huge underestimate, relying on a solitary tracker of such data – the volunteer organization Homeless Memorial Project. The organization compiles a list of shelter users who are later found dead on the streets for a variety of reasons, but relies on the networking capabilities of four volunteers.

Skeptics point out that some who end up dying on the streets refuse to go to shelters in the first place. With average shelter occupancies being in the 90-95 per cent range, and city council pledging in 2013 to reduce this rate to under 90 per cent, reducing spaces doesn’t really make sense – there is need regardless. Furthermore, opening up spaces and having less crowding inversely encourages more people to seek shelter from extreme weather conditions. So-called “Wet- shelters” like Seaton House encourage further use of shelters, by supervising and controlling the quantity and safety of alcohols consumed by the chronically homeless. Left unattended, many desperate people on the streets with alcohol abuse problems turn to cheap – but dangerous –  forms of alcohol including mouthwash and rubbing alcohol. In this regard, Seaton House continues to serve as an important community resource today for groups that are not necessarily accepted by other such resources, just as it has done historically. It was initially opened during the Great Depression as a shelter for men who were no longer employable. It continues to represent this group today, with the average client age being 57. There is likely to be a greater need in the future for such a targeted program, as older Canadians are making up an increasingly larger proportion of the population, the effects of which may potentially see more impoverished seniors without adequate shelter.

The city of Toronto’s Housing and Homelessness Services division published some annonymous feedback received at the George Street redevelopment proposal’s open house in June. Although there is no indication of the inclusion of those affected most by Seaton House closing (its residents), community feedback was generally mixed. Some respondents questioned the space shortfall and some heralded the development as “much needed”. There is probably merit to both points of view, but what ought to be most pressing is the need for a plan. However, this is Toronto; a city of massive stature and with the most resources needed by homeless people – access to food banks, government ID bureaus, healthcare facilities, etc. All of this is to say that so long as there are homeless people, they are going to flock to large urban centers, where access to the aforementioned resources is possible.

City Council has merely stated that it will find housing for all of Seaton House’s residents, but there is reason to be skeptical. When the government of Ontario – along with so many other jurisdictions – “deinstitutionalized” the Queen Street Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Parkdale, 1980, there was little to no assistance for its former residents in finding other housing arrangements. Much of that population has ended up on the streets, relying on shelter spaces or perishing in the extreme conditions. Perhaps this was the provincial government’s way of downloading responsibility to increasingly cash-strapped municipalities. Perhaps by extension closing shelter spaces is a way of “re-uploading” responsibility to higher levels of government, given that it is well documented that homelessness is a massive burden on public healthcare resources, largely funded by the province. Whatever the case though, with the cost of human lives on the line, an explicit transition plan is most definitely needed. Otherwise we will see even more voiceless, transient people in need of assistance fall through political and jurisdictional cracks.

George Street revitalization is scheduled to begin in 2018, so Seaton House will have the opportunity to shiver its way through 2015-2016’s harsh winter, emerging in the spring battle-hardened but still standing. Let’s hope that its clients, and all of Toronto’s homeless will have the opportunity to revel in that victory come spring 2016.

Robert St. Pierre is a Master’s of Public Policy Candidate of 2017, having previously graduated with a B.A. in Global Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2012. He is interested in social policy, foreign policy, and aboriginal affairs, as well as travel, sports, and gardening. In fact, he has embarked upon a life-long quest to produce the perfect zucchini and recently set a record for most pears consumed in one month from his friend’s pear tree in Kitchener-Waterloo, in September 2015.