Early one morning years ago, I was awoken by an excited caller. “Have you ever seen a homeless person in Willowdale?” he demanded.
“Who is this and why are you asking?” I wondered, still half asleep.
“It’s Mel,” he said.
It was Mel Lastman’s first run for mayor of the newly-amalgamated city, and he had been met by a media storm that morning after declaring that nobody was homeless in North York.
Later that day, a homeless woman was found dead in a North York gas station. But that morning in 1997, I told Mel that I hadn’t seen anybody visibly homeless in Willowdale because, to that point, I hadn’t. And as North York headed into amalgamation that year, local residents were counting on Mel to keep them relatively isolated from such “downtown” problems.
Fast forward to now, when we do see examples of homelessness in our midst and Mayor Tory and councillors from across the city are determined to do something about it. Judging by the many emails I have received on this subject, many residents support this commitment and want to know how to help.
That opportunity arrives this year with the planned construction of approximately 60 units of permanent housing on city-owned land at 175 Cummer Avenue. Each apartment will be self-contained, with its own small kitchen and washroom. There will also be a communal kitchen and laundry facilities.
Last year, City Council approved the use of high-quality three-storey modular housing as part of a 10-year action plan to reduce homelessness and relieve stress on the city’s shelter system. Two sites in Scarborough and Toronto have already been built; the Willowdale project is part of a second phase of locations identified by city staff.
I learned of the Cummer proposal last week and wanted to notify the community as soon as possible. I see it as good news.
A report on the project is to be released this Tuesday, February 23 and presented to the city’s Planning and Housing Committee on March 2nd. An online and phone-in community information and engagement meeting is scheduled for March 9, with notices going out via Canada Post. In recent years, and especially during the pandemic, finding solutions to Toronto’s homeless crisis has become both more urgent and more complex. With this month’s extreme cold weather, it is hard for those of us living in warm, comfortable surroundings to even imagine what it would be like to sleep on a subway grate or in a bus shelter.
The city tries to provide enough emergency shelter beds but this is, at best, a band-aid solution. Housing people in rented hotel units is a short-term fix. Permanent housing – that’s a solution.
The modular building will be constructed in a factory and assembled on site. It will be ready for occupancy by the time the weather turns cold again. Residents will be selected by city staff from among those with nowhere to live, with some priority given to the most vulnerable, including seniors and pregnant women. It will be Supportive Housing, with staff on-site to assist residents who need help.