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Canada

LEVY: An inside look at new refugee shelter program

Homes First Society CEO Patricia Mueller says she wants to “make a difference” with the new refugee shelter on north Yonge St.

In fact, she has renamed the shelter — to be housed on two floors in the former North York hydro building — the “Willowdale Welcome Centre.”

Mueller said the owners of the building, Times Group Corp. — themselves immigrants — felt the need to “give back” to the community.

The site was listed in the 2019 budget with $3-million set aside should it be needed.

It has sat idle until now.

During a sit-down meeting and tour last Friday, photographer Stan Behal and I heard that other than the smaller Sojourn House, this is really the first shelter of its kind in Toronto –a housing a program specifically for newcomers.

“We think by collecting them together we will have a social benefit of community,” Mueller said.

“People together will share their stories … they will share how they’ve navigated the system and I think that will help even further.”

The first set of refugees — she prefers to call them “newcomers” because of the potential stigma attached to refugees — will start arriving Tuesday under a phased approach that will see them at full capacity by the end of the second week.

They will be coming from shelters — not hotels or motels.

Their mandate is serve 200 refugees to free up space in traditional shelters, she says.

Last week, a city spokesman told me the flow of refugees coming into Toronto continues unabated.

Some 36% of shelter space is currently occupied by refugee/asylum claimants and from Oct. 3-9 alone 158 claimants arrived in Toronto seeking shelter, the city spokesman said.

The main floor of the spacious, airy and bright 7,400-square-metre (80,000-square-foot) former hydro building will serve up to 80 men; the second floor will house up to 120 women.

Co-ed dining rooms will be provided on both floors.

Each space — “measured out according to shelter standards” says Jamie Facciolo, Homes First’s director of housing and shelters — contains beds, not cots.

Every refugee client will also have a locker to store their valuables, something I’ve been pushing for in respite shelters.

Mueller said when each client comes in they will do a “needs and wants” process to see where people are in their settlement services.

From that, she said they will “design supports” for each of them to move along in the continuum — housing services and employment programs to help them put together resumes and find jobs.

She says they’ll also be providing rec programs, considered an “important part of the integration and connection with fellow residents.”

“My goal is to meet people where they’re at and support them to get where they want to go as quickly as possible,” says Mueller.

Facciolo said they will always have two security guards on duty and four staff on each floor 24-7.

During the day there will be intensive case management staff, community development and programming supervisors as well.

Mueller said Homes First operates 13 housing sites and eight shelters on a continuum of homelessness.

Although they are required to provide harm reduction services, the population they’re serving at the refugee shelter will be a on a “different continuum” than some of the larger or low-barrier shelters — meaning most probably won’t need them.

The information session planned for Nov. 21 will not be a “meeting,” she adds.

It will instead be a drop-in opportunity to present their approach and staffing model to the community.

She’s hoping people in attendance will also offer to volunteer.

As the tour ended — and many of my questions were answered — I wondered why city staff and politicians forever make it worse for themselves by keeping controversial shelters like this a deep dark secret — until after their doors open.

They create more problems for themselves by not being forthright.

SLevy@postmedia.com

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