A food line circled around the tall oak tree on the corner of Queen and Sherbourne, next to Moss Park, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto.

On a humid August evening with the sun resting just above the horizon, dozens of residents and supporters, wearing “Save the School House” stickers on their shirts, have gathered for a community meal before marching north to help save a men’s shelter from closing at the end of November.

The School House is a 55-bed, men’s only shelter, where residents are permitted to consume a limited quantity of beer in a supervised environment. 

Click here to see more pictures from the Save the School House rally.

It’s a proven harm reduction strategy that’s reduced homeless deaths and reliance on medical and police  services.

“The School House is an amazing wet shelter that’s been in existence for many years,” said Anne Egger, a nurse practitioner in downtown Toronto who used to work at the School House.

“They can get a meal, a bed, drink safely, find permanent housing and get counselling.”

It’s almost impossible for these men to be housed anywhere else.

“Nobody else will take them,” said Egger. 

Housing for single men is scare in the Downtown Eastside. And the School House is a viable alternative that’s worked successfully for decades. Many considered it a home.

“We need more places like this.”

Instead, the Downtown Eastside is filling up with luxury condominiums, forcing more homeless people to spend their nights on the streets or in parks where they’re routinely assaulted or fined. 

Others end up dead.

“I’ve got a feeling of deja vu,” said Peter Leslie from the Toronto Harm Reduction Alliance. “We’ve doing this for a while.”

The fight to keep the School House open has been going on for several months now. 

“When we gave our deputations at committee level, they were indifferent and rude,” said Leslie, referring to the March 27 deputations he made to the Community Development and Recreation Committee along with Beric German, Downtown East Stop the Cuts Committee,
Lisa Schofield, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and Wendy Forrest, Health Providers Against Poverty. 

“It was shameful. They weren’t even paying attention.”

In response, the Committee said in the minutes, “There is confusion about what the city’s new model of care is, what is happening with current shelter residents and what plans are in place for the School House in the future. Concerns have been raised by individuals and various groups such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), Health Providers Against Poverty (HPAP), Harm Reduction Network, Parkdale Community Legal Services, and Street Nurses Network. Full information is required to respond to concerned groups in an informed manner.”

In the minutes of March 27, the Committee also wrote “In 2009, Dixon Hall indicated that they could no longer operate this program as it did not meet with their new strategic service directions. Furthermore, there were concerns about the condition of the building in which the program operated, specifically the multi-level stair access and the increasing safety issues facing the aging shelter clients.

“After a review of the program and the building capital requirements, Hostel Services decided that they would not seek another operator for the program nor would they replicate the program elsewhere. This decision was based on the City moving away from this model of care and support. Intake of new clients was suspended in the last quarter of 2011. There are currently 35 residents in the shelter. Dixon Hall has agreed to continue operating the program until all remaining clients obtain housing or shelter elsewhere. There is no date confirmed to stop shelter operations.”

“They didn’t shut down City Hall because Nathan Phillips Square needed repairs,” said Leslie. “So there’s no need to shut down the School House just because it needs repairs.”

In July, City Council adopted the following: 

– City Council reinvest in the shelter system in 2012 the $746,790 gross ($135,908 net) currently used to fund the Schoolhouse.

– City Council request the General Manager, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration to report back to the Community Development and Recreation Committee on how the $746,790 gross ($135,908 net) currently used to fund the Schoolhouse shelter could be used to create housing allowances and supports for clients requiring harm reduction assistance consistent with any terms and conditions of the new Provincial funding model.

– City Council request the General Manager of Shelter, Support and Housing Administration, in consultation with the City Manager, Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dixon Hall, the ward councillors, community representatives and other key stakeholders to report back to the Community Development and Recreation Committee on November 14, 2012 with new models of transitional housing by providers, either locally or from abroad, that support Toronto’s shelter and housing objectives with specific recommendations on how to improve and integrate the City’s harm reduction service delivery with appropriate day programming and sustainable “housing first” strategies in alternative and substitute facilities.

– City Council request the General Manager, Shelter, Support and Housing Administration to report back to the Community Development and Recreation Committee on how the $746,790 gross ($135,908 net) currently used to fund the Schoolhouse shelter could be re-allocated within the adult shelter system and used to support harm reduction programming at other shelter sites.

Since the fall of 2011, there have no new intakes at the School House shelter. The City said the program will continue to operate until all remaining clients find permanent housing or shelter elsewhere. 

“It’s really important that we have meetings like this where we get to talk to each other,” said Gaetan Heroux from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

“We rarely get to do this on a street corner like Sherbourne and Queen.”

Heroux has seen a lot of changes in the neighbourhood over the last 25 years. And little of it benefited low income or homeless people.

Older buildings are being sold off to developers who erect multi-story luxury condominiums, rooming houses have dwindled and shelters that have existed for almost 100 years have either closed their doors or are operating at way over capacity.

“People are being pushed out of the neighbourhood,” said Heroux. 

“And it’s important to understand that. Because those politicians know exactly what they’re doing. When we talk about the School House, we’re talking about displacement. We’re talking about a neighbourhood that’s been home to poor people for over 200 years.”

But now that’s all changing.

By eliminating services for poor and homeless people, the City is paving the way for middle and upper income people to take over the entire neighbourhood.

“We will not sit by and watch our people die on these streets or suffer in these apartments that need fixing,” said Heroux. 

“We need more (affordable) housing. Not more condos.”

Shortly after 6 pm, they began their march, heading north on Sherbourne Street. The setting sun peered through the gaps between the buildings, silhouetting protesters behind their flags and striking the backs of  a line of bicycle cops, whose shadows fell across the street.

They passed boarded up buildings near Dundas and Sherbourne. Surprised residents looked down from their balconies or sat on the front steps of the remaining city owned buildings in the neighbourhood.

Most of the city owned homes on the east side of the street from Dundas to Gerrard will eventually be sold. They’re worth a lot of money and the City desperately needs the cash to fix up other City owned buildings.

At Gerrard and Sherbourne, protesters attached a banner that said “This Should Be Shelter” to a chain-link fence surrounding an empty property, slated for re-development (most likely) into upscale condominiums.

Then the march headed west on Gerrard and south on George Street, approaching the School House shelter. The police quickly set up a line with their bikes in front of the shelter. But the protesters only stopped for a few seconds before moving on, leaving the police baffled.

“Save the School House,” protesters chanted, as they marched towards Dundas Street where they turned west, stopping at the southwest corner of Jarvis and Dundas Streets.

Formerly the site of a small low-rise retail plaza, developer Great Gulf Homes plans to build the 46-storey, 417 unit Pace Condos tower on the empty site.

“An enormous structure that is already casting its shadow over this community even before it’s been built,” said OCAP’s John Clarke.

“If they are closing the School House shelter, they are closing it to prepare for this building and many more like them. Their intention is to change the fabric of this community by driving out the poor and the homeless.”

Since the 1800’s, the Downtown Eastside has been home to thousands of poor people.

“And now they’re looking to destroy that,” said Clarke, who implored everyone to rally and defend their community.

Especially from the negative stereotyping and stigmatization of its residents. That negativity has led some to characterize the School House shelter as a place where cheap booze flows around the clock.

But homeless people have no private place to drink. And it’s illegal to drink in the parks or on the streets. 

“And now they want to close the School House shelter, a place that has enabled people to take a drink behind closed doors,” said Clarke.

“So people are going to be put on the streets where they have no choice but to drink and the cops will quietly take care of it.”

Sipping a beer, Clarke proposed a toast to keeping the School House open. Over 100 cans of beer were handed out so everyone could enjoy a toast together.

“The first thing we’re going to do is drink to all those people who died on these streets and remember them tonight,” said Gaetan Heroux.

“Because they had such a hard, fucking time.”

Then they toasted the remaining residents at the School House.

“One day maybe we can have social housing in here with a patio and we can sit on on chairs beside tables like human beings, have a beer together and talk,” said Heroux.

“Just as everyone can do across the street (at the hotel).”

John Bonnar

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