Members of a downtown Toronto neighbourhood protest in front of a building that is to house a respite centre run by the St. Felix Centre. Photo by Jacquelyn K. Humphrey

Neighbours fight St. Felix Centre’s respite centre

  • November 2, 2023

A new respite centre to be run by the St. Felix Centre in downtown Toronto is facing strong opposition from community stakeholders.

The proposed location of the program serving the homeless is a former commercial building at 629 Adelaide St. W., just 110 metres from St. Mary’s Catholic Elementary School. It is also just 400 metres from the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, home to a supervised injection site.

This planned 60-space facility scheduled to open early in 2024 effectively replaces the respite centre that operated at 25 Augusta Ave. for years by the St. Felix Centre, which will be redeveloped into long-term affordable housing units.

St. Felix Centre, a non-profit founded by the Felician Sisters, will run this new “low barrier” establishment.

Neighbours, parents with children attending St. Mary’s and congregants of nearby St. Mary’s Parish are among the stakeholders opposing the respite centre. They have held multiple rallies, hung posters, started an online petition with over 2,000 signatures so far, and presented their objections to the City of Toronto’s Economic and Community Development Committee on Oct. 24. Their greatest concern is the potential risks to children attending a school set to be sandwiched between a respite centre and a supervised injection site.

Tania Sarracini is the mother of two children attending St. Mary’s School.

“There is no outside room to do anything so that means people are going to be hanging out in the schoolyard and walking across the schoolyard to get to the safe injection site,” said Sarracini. “The kids are ages three to 14. They shouldn’t be finding needles in their yard, and who knows what else they will find.”

Sindy Brotto, a parent of three St. Mary’s students, said that even though the back of the school parking lot is locked down, “there still is drug paraphernalia that custodians have to clear out early every morning, so the space is safe for children to play. There are feces and condoms. … Now with the school being in between the injection site and the respite, we just don’t feel like it is a safe environment for our children.”

Sarracini has lived in the neighbourhood for years. She said “there has been a change in the community” since St. Felix Centre began operating a centre in the parking lot of Lamport Stadium a few years ago.

“There have been multiple assaults, multiple break-ins, etc.,” said Sarracini. “I was assaulted. I was with my daughter and two of her friends and I was assaulted on the street verbally, and I was pushed.”

Brotto echoed Sarracini’s concerns about how St. Felix Centre operates the location at Lamport.

“St. Felix takes no responsibility for what takes place outside of its facility,” said Brotto. “Anyone who walks by Lamport Stadium will know exactly what I mean. It is unsafe. We don’t even drive by there anymore. My nine-year-old is petrified. ”

Enrique Cochegrus, director of philanthropy and communications for St. Felix Centre, said the centre has conducted “a very successful community engagement” in Liberty Village.

“We are very close with many of the big corporate groups that are in the area. We try to engage with a lot of the community members regularly. We see a lot of different people donating regularly,” said Cochegrus.

“I don’t dismiss some of the experiences that people have either at that location or somewhere else in the city with people experiencing homelessness. We hear that a lot that it is people staying at St. Felix Centre. It’s downtown. It could be really anyone.”

Cochegrus said people assume negative incidents are always perpetrated by St. Felix Centre guests given its close proximity, but that is not the case.

Brian Harris, executive director of St. Felix Centre, calls on people who oppose the support centre to consider Catholic social teachings.

“We really reflect on our Catholic values as a Catholic organization,” said Harris. “St. Felix is a Catholic organization. We don’t proselytize or try to convert people, but our value system is based on Catholic teaching. The marginalized folks in our community who are struggling and are facing all these different challenges — we don’t believe that Jesus would turn to these people and say, ‘They are so dangerous. We should cast them out and we should not offer them support. We should be afraid of them.’ He would try to teach everyone that we should love each other, accept one another and reach out to each other.”

The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) said it understands members of the school community may be concerned about the centre and is working “with our partners at the City of Toronto to address any concerns that could potentially affect the safety of the school community.”

St. Felix Centre is expected to have its community safety team patrolling the exterior of the building 24/7, engaging with community members who are in distress over an interaction with a guest and if required will call emergency services.

Local MP Kevin Vuong, who got married at St. Mary’s, said “this is already an incredibly compassionate community. There is a lot of (outreach) that comes out of St. Mary’s Parish as well too. That is what comes from being a Catholic, right? Helping those in need. The issue at hand is that the community already hosts many shelters and injection sites. By locating the low-barrier, 24/7 respite centre with no central intake, which means anyone can show up at any time, it recklessly puts children in the community at risk.”

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