[Hpn] Home to endless possibilities

Graeme Bacque gbacque@colosseum.com
Tue, 23 Nov 2004 04:03:12 -0500


Nov. 23, 2004. 01:00 AM

Home to endless possibilities
An old hotel is being remade into a second chance for many

Project's more than a shelter, writes Laurie Monsebraaten

With their duffle bags and a homemade lemon pie wrapped in foil, Colin 
Reed and Cam Campbell ride the elevator to the sixth floor of the old 
Avenue Park Hotel to begin the next chapter in their sometimes-troubled 

Both have been living at the Na-Me-Res aboriginal shelter since the 
summer, sorting out personal and spiritual issues, and are grateful for 
the opportunity to move into Toronto's newest, and perhaps most 
innovative, housing project near Avenue and Davenport Rds.

The project plans to transform the building at 138 Pears Ave. into a 
lively community of formerly homeless people that will offer housing, 
extensive counselling services and friendship. The hotel's 
6,000-square-foot nightclub and commercial kitchen will hopefully become 
a thriving business that provides training and jobs for tenants.

The Pears Ave. conversion is modelled after a highly successful project 
in New York City that in 1994 turned the derelict Times Square Hotel 
into a beautifully restored home for 652 street people, low-income 
workers and psychiatric survivors with on-site mental-health and social 
services, vocational assistance and substance-abuse counselling.

Common Ground, the agency that runs the Manhattan building, employs 
residents as security guards, maintenance workers and administrative 
staff. And it runs a Ben and Jerry's ice cream franchise on the main 
floor to provide job training and paid employment for the formerly 
homeless people.

St. Clare's Multifaith Housing Society, which is running the Toronto 
project, is providing housing and property management, and relying on 15 
community agencies serving low-income and homeless people, such as 
Na-Me-Res, to refer tenants and offer ongoing support.

St. Clare's, a non-profit group, was formed in 1998 in response to the 
former Tory government's decision to axe the province's social-housing 

"Everything we're doing is inspired by Common Ground" in New York, says 
Jon Harstone, the general manager of St. Clare's who is hoping to woo a 
similar type of marquee franchise for Pears Ave.

"Buildings like (the Avenue Park Hotel) have real potential because they 
are residential and they are vacant and people can begin moving in right 
away," he says, adding it has been just eight months since the building 
was first offered for sale. Usually it takes three years to build an 
affordable-housing project.

While the building is still almost vacant  Campbell and Reed are among 
10 new tenants who have joined about 20 long-term hotel guests  
Gabriella Micallef, who is managing the project, expects it to be full 
by Christmas and that a community kitchen and meal program will begin 
next month.

"The possibilities for this place are just so exciting," she says. "We 
have an opportunity to do something that has never been done before in 
this city."

Since referring agencies serve a diverse population, including homeless 
women, refugees, youth and seniors, St. Clare's is joining with the 
Family Service Association of Toronto to knit the community together 
within the building and into the neighbourhood outside.

"We work from a model of trying to be there to offer people the 
resources to realize their potential," says the association's Yves Savoie.

For some, that may mean help finding work. For others, it may mean help 
finding meaningful volunteer activities or referrals for such problems 
as substance abuse, Savoie says.

`I think some people thought we were operating a shelter. But we're 
providing housing. Period.'

Gabriella Micallef, manager

Rather than filling the building with vulnerable people who share the 
same medical, social or demographic background, the building will be a 
microcosm of any other neighbourhood and offer tenants the opportunity 
to learn from each other.

As Micallef says: "If given support, most people will live up to their 

But that speed has also unnerved some residents of the surrounding Annex 
community, who complained bitterly about the lack of community 
consultation at an information meeting last week.

"I think it was a grave disservice to not let the neighbourhood know," 
says Nicki Clarke, who lives in a 32-unit townhouse condominium project 
next door to the former hotel. "We have something like 30 supportive 
housing projects in this area. It just seems so silly. They should have 
given us the opportunity to embrace it rather than holler about it."

Still, Clarke says she and others remain open-minded.

"It was never great shakes as a hotel. So this may well turn out to be 
100 per cent better," she says. "We used to get people sitting on their 
balconies throwing beer bottles and cigarette ends into our garden, etc. 
And that wasn't good either."

Micallef admits St. Clare's probably should have provided more 
information to the community earlier. But the agency was hampered, in 
part, by its funding, she says.

St. Clare's is footing its $6.5 million purchase of the building through 
$2.7 million from the federal government's Supporting Communities 
Partnership Initiatives program, $500,000 from the mayor's homelessness 
fund set up in 1999, and $300,000 from a city housing fund established 
with provincial money when the former Mike Harris government cancelled 
Ontario's social-housing construction program in 1995. St. Clare's has 
taken out a mortgage for the rest.

"I think some people thought we were operating a shelter," Micallef 
says. "But we're providing housing. Period. And people are welcome to 
stay for as long as they want."

However, with 200-square-foot rooms equipped with just a bar fridge and 
microwave that will carry market rents of between $500 and $600 a month, 
most people who no longer need help will likely move into the larger 
community, she predicts.

Most of the tenants  like Campbell and Reed, who are on welfare  will 
pay 30 per cent of their income on rent.

Campbell, 39, who arrived from Vancouver in June, is anxious to turn his 
artistic talent into a career as an illustrator for film or video games. 
One day he'd like to direct feature films.

"I'm a writer who draws," says Campbell, stylishly dressed in black 
T-shirt, jeans and overcoat. "I consider myself a storyteller."

Reed, a 6-foot-3 former truck driver from Winnipeg, talks about his 
hopes of finding some work that will leave him energy to supplement his 
B.A. with courses on public policy. His dream is to use his knowledge 
and experience to help improve life for aboriginals and other low-income 

The 33-year-old is pleased to be starting that quest in a building with 
such diversity in such an affluent part of town.

"The area is nice," the soft-spoken man says, looking out at the CN 
Tower from his balcony. "I don't have to worry about being in a rough 

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