St. Mary’s School is just 110 metres from a proposed homeless shelter in downtown Toronto. Previous plans had called for a respite centre at 629 Adelaide St. W. Photo from

Toronto respite centre plans change

  • December 1, 2023

Plans to convert an empty commercial building in downtown Toronto into a 60-space, 24-hour, low-barrier respite centre have shifted to become a 50-space shelter for people experiencing homelessness.

One element that hasn’t changed is that St. Felix Centre is tasked with managing this site at 629 Adelaide St. W., just steps from a Catholic elementary school, which has raised concerns among neighbours and parents of St. Mary’s students.

This sudden move, quietly announced with subtle detail changes on the St. Felix webpage Nov. 16, sparked puzzlement among residents of the downtown Niagara neighbourhood, but it was confirmed as the way forward during a virtual community information session about the site on Nov. 22.

“I was very surprised,” said community member Diane Chester. “I have been engaged in this process and at no point was told there would be any other options. We were always told, ‘it’s a relocation. It has to be a 24-hour respite site. That was at (25) Augusta (Ave.), that is what it has to be here.’ It’s very confusing that it is now a shelter.”

One thing was made clear during this Zoom call: whether the site be a shelter or a respite centre, the majority of community stakeholders remain opposed to this forthcoming encroachment on their neighbourhood.

Jennifer Hilsden, voiced this sentiment during the Q&A portion of the meeting.

“A small group of us walked around a petition showing approximately 98 per cent of the participants we asked from a walkable location surrounding 629 Adelaide St. strongly oppose a homeless shelter at that location in a residential neighbourhood with a cul-de-sac, and steps away from an elementary school,” said Hilsden.

St. Mary’s Elementary School is located just 110 metres away from this proposed site.

Garson Hoffman, the father of a young adult daughter who lives right beside 629 Adelaide St. W., told The Catholic Register that “if a respite centre is a 10 out of 10 in concern, a shelter would be a 9.9 out of 10.”

Chester said she and other residents have knocked on doors to speak to residents about their experience living in a neighbourhood with a homeless shelter in the vicinity. She said she visited the areas around three separate sites and was told to expect “needles and drug paraphernalia, human feces, garbage from food handouts, people yelling and breaking (stuff), people unable to walk because of drug use, drug dealers controlling the neighbourhood and people sleeping, eating and congregating on private property.”

Enrique Cochegrus, the director of business development and communications at St. Felix Centre, said during the call the non-profit takes “community safety and outreach connections with our communities very seriously. We will be implementing different measures to make sure we grow together and build together a community that is thriving for everyone, including our guests.”

“This site will be staffed 24/7 with individuals who are social services workers, and people with lived experiences,” said Cochegrus. “All of them are trained in providing case management for housing, mental health support, harm reduction services, de-escalation, conflict resolution crisis, prevention and intervention management.”

The City of Toronto touts that access control and video surveillance systems will also be established around the site, and a community safety team will patrol the area 24/7. The city, and the Barnes Management Group team it has hired to liaise with the community, is formulating a community safety plan with the Toronto Police Service. This group is also working to assist St. Mary’s School to craft a security strategy.

A specific concern raised by multiple community members during the engagement session was the harm reduction services this site intends to offer — safe injection for drugs. Concerns were raised about St. Felix guests using drugs at 629 Adelaide Street W. when there is already a supervised injection site just 400 metres away from St. Mary’s.

“They are going to sandwich the elementary school between a safe-injection site and this facility, which will just astronomically increase the exposure these kids will have to a lot of behaviours they should not be exposed to,” said Hoffman.

Monica Waldman, a manager of the city’s shelter, support and housing administration department, denies the harm reduction approach encourages increased drug use.

“We do provide harm reduction supports, including the distribution of supplies,” said Waldman. “I think there is no evidence-based research to say access to supplies translates into increased drug use just as condom distribution does not mean an increase in sexual activity.”

Because of the shift from respite centre to shelter, the opening of the centre will be delayed from late winter to some time in the spring of 2024. A major source of consternation for the residents is that the city declared its designs for 629 Adelaide St. W. with no consultation beforehand. Officials declare they have the “delegated authority” to make these decisions to aggressively respond to the city’s homelessness crisis.

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