TORONTO — Michael Smith wants to settle down.
At 71 years old, he imagines what it would be like to have his own home. Somewhere he can call up his friends, fire up the BBQ and share a meal over the sounds of his favourite music: Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley and The Doors.
Smith has been homeless for about 25 years. In that time, he says the closest he’s come to a place of his own is in a downtown Toronto hotel, one of several sites the city converted to temporary homeless shelters at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith — who has schizophrenia, a heart condition, walks with a cane and has survived multiple strokes — was connected with a nearby family doctor shortly after he moved to the hotel in 2020, he says. Almost everyone coming and going from the hotel says hello. A cashier at the Tim Hortons next door knows him by name and comes by his table later to warn about a storm brewing.
But Smith is set to be displaced when the Strathcona Hotel owner reclaims the site at the end of August and resumes regular hotel operations. It’s a situation that has him and other site residents distressed at what the future will hold.
“Stop this harassment, kicking people out when they got no other options. Where are they going to go? Where am I going to go?” says Smith.
“It’s better to sleep in a tent or underneath a bridge. At least the rent is free.”
Smith is among the shelter hotel residents calling on Toronto’s new mayor, Olivia Chow, to step in to stop the site’s closure as a shelter until more suitable alternatives are identified.
He says he was offered relocation to other shelters roughly 20 kilometres away, but those are far from his downtown doctor and the community he’s now a part of.
Despite residents pushing for and receiving assurances they could stay at the hotel until Aug. 15, some were abruptly told they had to relocate this month, according to the Encampment Support Network, a volunteer-run group working closely with hotel residents.
In a letter dated July 5, shared by the network, the non-profit operating the shelter hotel appears to tell a resident they will be moved July 14 to a shelter in North York, where they can only take two bags of belongings and will have to share a room with another person.
In a written statement, the non-profit Dixon Hall said since they are not owners of the Strathcona property, their role is restricted to the delivery of services based on directives by the city. It said they were recently advised that the shelter had to be handed back to the city by Aug. 15.
“The reality is that alternate, limited accommodation often becomes available on very short notice. Given the constraints we work under, we try our best to relocate our residents based on individual solutions,” said Dixon Hall CEO Mina Mawani.
“Unfortunately, there are times that these move outs have to happen quickly or we lose the housing/shelter option for our residents,” she said, adding that despite Dixon Hall staff’s efforts to match residents to housing, many will move to another shelter hotel dozens of kilometres away.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, the city said 21 Strathcona Hotel residents had been relocated to other shelters as part of a “phased approach leading up to August 15.”
The scattered move-out dates and the haphazard communication have contributed to Smith’s unease. His preference would be to move to a downtown apartment with supports for seniors.
“It’s not easy to (live) 25 years, no home,” he says.
“To go from place to place, it’s not an easy life.”
Toronto’s overstretched shelter system poses one of most urgent challenges for Chow’s mayoralty.
The city’s roughly 9,000 shelter spaces are routinely full and the latest data shows upwards of 200 people are turned away on an average night. Asylum seekers, who make up about a third of Toronto’s shelter population, are being turned away from at-capacity shelters and steered towards federal programs as the city and federal government feud over funding.
Experts have urged the city to explore converting more hotels to supportive housing, arguing such a move would reduce shelter and health-care costs while offering social benefits.
“People are being severely abused through policies, and that ranges from more displacement from shelter hotels closing, to the scene on city streets with refugees literally left locked outside of shelters,” said Cathy Crowe, a longtime street nurse and educator.
As of February, the city was operating 23 temporary shelter sites and had extended leases at a majority of those until April 2024, earmarking five for closure this year. It has since closed three of those, with Strathcona Hotel and another hotel next up to close in August.
The sites, introduced as a temporary measure to support physical distancing during the pandemic, now constitute about a quarter of the city’s shelter space.
Crowe said along with permanently converting hotels and other buildings to housing, the city and other levels of governments must expand rent supplements and housing allowances so people can afford a place of their own.
Chow, at her first news conference as mayor on Wednesday, said she was unfamiliar with the Strathcona Hotel specifically, but said several hotel contracts are time-limited and some of the operators wanted to return to regular operations.
“So, it’s not completely under the city of Toronto’s control,” she said.
The city said it closed the Strathcona site to new admissions in June and has been working with residents on relocation, including plans for permanent housing. It said 13 residents have moved to housing since June 7, and nine housing units “are in the process of being allocated.”
“The city understands the anxiety that this closure may be causing residents and is sympathetic to their concerns about moving from established communities and supports,” it said.
Smith, the hotel resident, said the city’s statements stand in contrast to what he’s experienced at the Strathcona site, where he claims relocation plans are slipshod.
“I have suffered long enough for the last 25 plus years,” he says. “Enough is enough. I’m ready to throw in the white flag and say, ‘I surrender.”’