About 15 years ago, Ric Atchison couldn’t work because of his arthritis, left a relationship, started drinking and ended up on the streets of downtown Toronto before finally landing at the School House shelter. 

It was there that he started to rebuild his life. Found work. Secured permanent housing. Stopped drinking and using drugs.

Click here to see more photos from Saturday’s rally.

“Everything just changed,” he says. “It was just a great place. Gives you a chance to get back on your feet.”

With a roof over his head, he says, “I felt like a human being.” Off the streets and safe, he took advantage of the opportunity to put the past behind him and start a new chapter in his life.

Otherwise, he admits, he would have eventually ended up in jail or dead. He’d lost his will to live and didn’t care what happened to him.

For Atchison, the School House meant he wasn’t out scrounging for food or begging for spare change on city sidewalks. He immediately went looking for work with local employment agencies.

That put a few dollars in his pocket and made him feel good about himself.

But the School House, Toronto’s only harm reduction based shelter, a place that’s thrown a lifeline to Ric Atchisoon and countless others for over 40 years, may not be around for much longer.

On Saturday, several hundred protesters rallied outside the School House on George Street to try and keep the shelter open.

It’s a 55-bed men’s only shelter where clients pay $7 to $8 a night to stay. Residents are fed and allowed to consume a limited quantity of beer. 

Without a national housing strategy, adequate social assistance rates, enough social housing or enough spaces in the existing shelters, anti-poverty activists are fighting hard to keep the School House open.

“We have a right to these services,” said Gaetan Heroux, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. “To housing, to food and to health care.”

Since the neighbourhood has a along history of providing these services to the poor and the homeless, people aren’t prepared to have them taken away without a fight.

“It (the School House) gave me a chance to stop and think about what I was doing and to work,” says a former School House client.

“And still have a place to drink but not in a park.”

That kept him from being harassed by the police, perhaps fined or even arrested. When he was living on the streets he had no other place to drink.

“The street was my home,” he says.

But when the School House became his home he was able to work during the day, come home at night and drink in a safe environment.

“They run the housing down and then they close it down,” says Beric German, who worked in the area for 25 years at a social services agency in the neighbourhood. 

“And that’s what’s happening to this shelter.”

It’s a pattern that’s become all too familiar in Toronto and across the country. Money that would have previously been earmarked to house and shelter people is now being spent on prisons, fighter jets and war ships.

A decade ago, Peter Leslie found himself on the streets after several failed attempts at trying to get “clean and sober” through rehab. He’d been a heavy drinker and drug user since his teens. 

On the streets, he met a harm reduction worker who helped him find “another way” to deal with his addictions.

“Through not setting the bar so high and giving realistic expectations and goals,” he says, “it worked for me.”

At the School House, he began to understand that just because he used drugs or drank he wasn’t a bad person. Unlike most shelters, where using and drinking can get you kicked to the curb. 

Today, he works in harm reduction doing overdose prevention and awareness with street level drug users largely marginalized by the rest of society.

He still drinks and uses occasionally. “It’s just not a sunup to sundown thing any more,” he says.

Anne Egger, an organizer with Health Providers Against Poverty and a frontline worker in the community, has worked at the School House and understands how critical a “wet” shelter is in the overall success of a harm reduction strategy.

“It’s really important that people who use alcohol or other substances have a safe place to be,” she says. 

“A safe place to eat, a safe place to be at night and have supports.”

The School House offers health and housing as well as harm reduction supports. Because not everyone is ready to move directly into independent housing from the streets.

“It’s a safe haven, an oasis,” says Frank Coburn, a former client at the School House. “On the streets there’s so much chaos and danger.”

But the School House gave him a nice, safe, warm, dry bed. “There’s nothing like it,” he says. 

As a result of the stability that the School House offered him, Coburn had the chance to get sober, clear headed and return to work.

“We all know that the School House works,” adds long time anti-poverty activist and street nurse Cathy Crowe.

“We always knew that if we could get someone into the School House, they were going to do much, much better.”

Crowe worries that the City of Toronto committee responsible for homeless shelters and services, that will be determine the fate of the School House on May 23, will be heavily influenced by the same bureaucrats that insist there are plenty of empty beds in the shelter system.

“The same bureaucrats that hid the fact that tuberculosis had returned in the shelter system,” she says. 

“The same bureaucrats that still let church basements open to provide shelter instead of real shelter beds.”

So she and others are hoping that local city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam will stand up and oppose the closing of the School House.

The shelter that kept Brian DuBourdieu and umpteen others from getting ticketed by police for drinking in the parks or passing out in an alleyway and getting run over by a truck.

“This is one safe place where they can come and have a few beers, go to work in the morning and move on with their lives,” says DuBourdieu.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.