TORONTO: Homeless set to stay put in 20-cot committee room

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Sun, 6 Jun 1999 11:36:31 -0400


Homeless set to stay put in 20-cot committee room

By Kevin Donovan and Lily Nguyen
Toronto Star Staff Reporters

GIVE ME SHELTER: Homeless people file through the doors at Metro Hall last
night for a meal and a possible bed for the night. Some were lucky enough to
sleep there on cots.

``Metro Hall may well become a permanent shelter,'' said Jagt, who took the
unusual step Friday of turning Metro Hall into Metro Hostel, accommodating
20 people in a committee room normally used by politicians and city
bureaucrats. Other homeless people were bused out to shelters as spaces
became available. Last night, 20 cots were set up in the committee room and
busing continued.

``If they kick them out, they can kick me out with it. I'll resign,'' said
Jagt, who has been with the city's shelter program for 25 years.
``We cannot do this to people. We cannot throw them out and say you have
overstayed your welcome here, too.''

He warned Toronto's homelessness crisis is about to become even worse:

On June 15, Council Fire, a 100-bed seasonal shelter on Parliament St.,
closes for the summer.

In July, the 571-bed Seaton House goes under construction for badly needed
renovations to its 40-year old structure. The project, Jagt noted, will
close half the shelter's beds over the next 18 months. That's a loss of 285
permanent beds while renovations continue.

Jagt said he had no choice but to arrange for a homeless shelter in the
ground-floor City Room at Metro Hall after plans to move 150 people - who
had been staying at the Fort York Armouries - into a warehouse facility on
Lake Shore Blvd. fell apart Friday.

``It's a crisis that is now on our doorstep,'' he said.

``This is the first time in my memory that we at the city have failed to
meet our mandate to serve all the homeless. We have always found enough
space in the past. We never had a point where we had too many people that we
could not serve them. Until now.''

Jagt blamed the warehouse fiasco on the landlord, who he said reneged on the
deal. Lawyers for both sides are now arguing over the issue, but a
spokesperson for the realtor involved in the aborted deal said there was no
signed lease and the city had yet to put up any money to rent the site.


Meanwhile, the crisis continues to grow.

Mayor Mel Lastman, fresh from a national conference of municipal leaders
discussing homelessness, yesterday renewed demands for Ottawa to take a
leadership role.

Real estate developers are ready to build affordable housing to ease the
problem if the federal government would only provide financial incentives,
Lastman said.

``Show me the money!'' he said in an interview. ``Look, we can get private
developers to build them. What I am saying is offer some incentives.''

Lastman wants Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's government to give developers a
waiver on the GST on building materials - a savings of 7 per cent - when
they erect apartment buildings. In return, Lastman said, developers would
guarantee to turn 20 per cent of the new units into affordable housing.

Lastman's demands go hand in glove with an earlier promise by Premier Mike
Harris' provincial government, which said it would waive the PST - an 8 per
cent savings - on building materials if a developer's project included
affordable housing.

``This is crazy, this is insanity,'' Lastman said of Ottawa's refusal, so
far, to act on requests that he and other municipal leaders have made.

If Ottawa ``thinks housing and the homeless is not their responsibility,
they are out of their minds,'' he said.

On Friday night, Jagt scrambled to billet some of the Fort York 150 at other
shelters and some at Metro Hall - which was originally set up as a temporary
soup kitchen, not a hostel.

Yesterday, scores of Toronto's homeless gathered in a courtyard at Metro
Hall.

Among them were Monica McKillop and Michael Robinson, who have been
common-law husband and wife for four years. After their landlord evicted
them four months ago, tossing their belongings on to the lawn, they began
staying at the Fort York Armouries.
But Friday's closing put them out on the street again.

That left them - like the other 150 homeless people who looked to the
armouries as a place of refuge at night - searching for somewhere else to
go. At the last moment, they found shelter with friends.

The problem for McKillop and Robinson, like many others, is that they want
to remain together.

As McKillop talked, a silver ring glinted as she twisted it nervously on her
finger. It was a recent gift from her husband, she said, showing it off
proudly.

``We'd rather stay outside than get split up,'' McKillop said. ``It's the
most important thing in the world.''

City shelter officials said they're doing everything possible to move the
homeless from Metro Hall to other shelter facilities, and last night, as
volunteers appeared to call out possible spaces for the night, McKillop
twisted anxiously in her chair.

``Are we going to go together? Are we going to go together?'' she asked
repeatedly.

The couple, like others in their situation, may have a hard time finding a
place, Jagt said. ``I can't predict where they'll go. It may have to be a
tent in a park.''

Jagt noted that families now face a 17-year wait to get a spot into assisted
housing in Toronto.

``If you have a baby and you are a single mother and struggling, the baby
will be grown up by the time you get into social housing,'' Jagt said.

Because of the lack of beds here, he said, the city's hostel service will
have to send 1,000 people to housing outside of Toronto, adding to the 400
people who are being housed in motels outside of the city.

``These are incredibly difficult times,'' Jagt said. ``We are doing what we
can.''