John Clarke

The School House is a fifty five bed mens’ homeless shelter located on George Street, two blocks from Ryerson University in the downtown east neighbourhood. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and a range of community allies are resisting City Hall’s plans to close its doors permanently.

The School House has been providing shelter for homeless people since the 1970s. It has played a particularly important role because it is a “wet” shelter: it grants its residents the same right everyone else has to drink alcohol in the place where they live. There are drinkers at every level of society, but homeless people who drink typically can only do so in public. As a result, they face criminalization and threats to their health and safety. As a “harm reduction” facility, the School House has given people a measure of dignity and stability, and has saved lives.

The decision to close this shelter is part of an accelerating gentrification process in the downtown east. For years, an unholy alliance of developers, business associations, upscale residents, local politicians and cops have worked to close down shelters, block the creation of social housing, shut down rooming houses and push homeless people out of the area. The goal is, of course, upscale redevelopment – to replace a low-income community with professional middle class people who wish to live in the urban core.

Most recently, Great Gulf Homes announced that it will build a forty-six story luxury condo tower at the corner of Dundas and Jarvis. Their marketing VP states that, “Once this is up, it’ll change the fabric of the area.” This is no idle boast. Work has yet to begin on the “Pace Condos” but the building is already casting a shadow over a low income community that has existed in the downtown east since the 1800s. Residents understand that the School House shelter is only the first victim if the planners and politicians prevail; the next target would surely be the six hundred bed Seaton House, Canada’s largest homeless shelter, which is located right next door.

OCAP first learned of the School House closure proposal when it was still in the hands of the hostel services bureaucracy. No politicians were involved yet. Realizing that the first step was to make this a public issue, we brought our concerns to local Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. She helped us bring the matter before City Council’s Community Development and Recreation Committee (CDRC). On June 26, dozens of homeless people, medical providers, front line agency workers and other community members appeared before this committee with powerful testimonies outlining the reasons to save the School House. The CDRC disregarded these submissions and voted – on a motion put forward by Wong-Tam herself – to proceed with the closing. Wong-Tam sought to deflect community outrage by including a vague mention of alternative housing initiatives in the motion, but is nonetheless responsible for this outcome.

The City has not announced an official closure date for the School House, which is being systematically depopulated. Residents are being moved out and not being replaced. The closing is taking place under the guise of resident relocation. However, a staff report that was brought before the CDRC in June revealed that only seven residents had been found apartments out of nearly thirty who had been pushed out. Moreover, if City Hall bureaucrats and politicians get their way, hundreds of people who will need the School House in the months ahead will be abandoned.

The fight now moves into the Community. On August 23, OCAP marched to the site of Pace Condos. Responding to the City’s decision to close a vital “wet” shelter, we handed out cans of beer and toasted the fight to save the School House.

We are now stepping up our mobilization. The campaign to prevent the loss of this shelter is a fight we can’t afford to lose. If they put a lock on the door, we will mobilize to take back the School House, and to keep it open.

John Clarke is a founding organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.