This article is proudly co-published by The Hoser and The Grind.
Ahead of Olivia Chow’s mayoral inauguration, a handful of residents of the Strathcona Hotel Shelter staged a demonstration asking the new mayor to take initiative and help them fight what they consider "imminent forced evictions" until adequate relocation plans are negotiated.
Speaking in front of City Hall, the residents of the hotel-turned-shelter urged Chow to "halt the shelter hotel closures until there are suitable alternatives, and to address the failed Shelter, Support & Housing Administration (SSHA) [system]," reads a press release from the Encampment Support Network Parkdale (ESN Parkdale).
"If Olivia Chow wants to prioritize housing, that needs to start today," says Marianna Reis, an organizer with ESN Parkdale, referring to Chow's claims during her mayoral campaign.
"She needs to address the situation that's happening with the residents of the Strathcona Hotel, as well as the broader situation of the shelter crisis. And that starts with things as simple as coming down to the Strathcona Hotel and actually listening to what residents have to say about their experiences of displacement and coercive relocation."
The small demonstration, which took place an hour before Chow was sworn in as mayor, involved the reading of a letter addressed to Chow, asking her to halt the evictions until the housing provider, Dixon Hall, and the SSHA "come to the table to negotiate a relocation plan in good faith."
Rushed evictions take residents by surprise
With most of the leases for the hotels-turned-shelters coming to an end in April, Dixon Hall had sent staff an internal memo in March advising of the August-termination date. But that wasn't communicated to residents until a leaked copy of that memo was circulated and residents demanded notice.
After that, residents were told they would have until August 15 to move, and they were assured that no one would be "shuffled out" and that their belongings would be safe, according to the residents’ letter to Chow, read out loud by resident Katy Chiappetta.
But without warning on the Canada-Day Weekend, Dixon Hall staff began rushing people out of their rooms with no more notice than a knock on their door and limited time to pack their belongings.
"People who couldn't make arrangements to store items that didn't fit into two bags [the limit imposed on residents by the shelter system] saw them disposed of almost immediately," says Chiappetta.
According to ESN organizer Fatima Hussain, three residents were being evicted the same day as the demonstration and Chow’s inauguration, with three more scheduled for the following week. Speaking toThe Grind and The Hoser, Hussain says the three being evicted this week received their notice only "a couple of days before," while others before them had received "no notice."
No one from Dixon Hall was made available for an interview with The Grind and The Hoser by publication time.
In April, Dixon Hall's housing director David Reycraft told the CBC that even though they knew the hotels were temporary from the beginning, they "didn't spend enough time thinking about what happens when they actually close."
To Hussain, that's "unacceptable."
"It shows that the SSHA has no oversight, and that the actual Toronto shelter standards are being completely ignored, and that there is very little oversight in this system," she says.
So far, the city has only managed to place five people, including Chiappetta, in stable housing, she says. The rest of the relocation plan so far includes moving most of the rest of the residents to the shelter at 66 Norfinch.
But Hussain says many residents feel like they have no choice but to accept that offer the day-of or face ending up in a congregate shelter setting, which can be "incredibly traumatizing for a lot of people."
Stability taken away
Since the Strathcona Hotel was first turned into a shelter at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and through the last few years, many of its residents – many of whom were previously houseless and disabled – have been able to live in relative stability. "For some, it has meant that we can maintain jobs or enroll in courses," Chiappetta said. "For others, having some semblance of safety has allowed us to heal from trauma."
"It's a lot easier to get a job when you have a room than when you're in a congregate shelter," Hussain adds.
Chiappetta had been at the hotel for a year and two months after having fallen into homelessness. Speaking to The Grind and The Hoser, she says being at the hotel helped her gain her footing – though it wasn't because of the city's help.
"I learn as I'm going with other residents, because there are a bunch of us that are on each other's support systems to find our placement," she says, adding that eventually, near the end of her stay, she did receive some help from the shelter.
"But I really had to fight for it," she adds.
With Chow at the helm, many are expecting a new type of progressive politics at City Hall. But Chiappetta and Hussain remain cautiously optimistic until they see words turn to actions.
"What we really actually need is for [shelter hotel program] it to be a stepping stone [to housing]," says Hussain. "And that means people need to get off their asses, and Olivia Chow has the power to intervene and to make sure the SSHA is being run correctly and that it is doing what it is mandated to do."