Deepak Ruparell was cautious when the city of Toronto approached him last year with a proposal to lease its hotels and use them as temporary shelters for the city’s homeless.
The hotel industry had been hurt, like others, by the sudden appearance of COVID-19. Ruparell did not know how long the pandemic would last. But the city’s needs were obvious, so he agreed.
For a year and a half, Silver Hotel Group, where Ruparell is president, has extended the city’s leases, allowing shelter users to stay in properties like the Bond Place Hotel near Yonge-Dundas Square. The deals will expire in the spring, but he says he is flexible if the city needs a few more months. Officials expressed some interest in buying the Bond months ago, Ruparell added. But with no concrete negotiations underway, he’s looking to get back to business.
“There was a need at that time, and we stepped forward and provided it … the question is how (the transition back) in a friendly and humane way, so that everyone’s criteria are met?” Ruparell said. “We have plans to get back into business as soon as possible after they retire.”
Currently, the city says that all of its hotel shelters have signed leases through the end of 2021, and most are willing to extend through spring. The city’s 2022 shelter infrastructure plan and three-year shelter and shelter plan are expected to go before a city council committee in late October, as anxiety rises among the more than 2,500 hotel occupants of the city. Toronto shelter, and some fear they will be funneled to older shelters. when leases expire.
The city bought a hotel shelter to turn it into supportive housing, transferring its residents in the meantime to another nearby temporary shelter, and has proposed to buy two more.
During COVID-19, hotel rooms were seen to offer better infection control than traditional shelters, as well as what industry workers say is a more dignified living arrangement. Having individual rooms comes with challenges, such as the risk of someone using a substance overdose on their own, said David Reycraft, director of housing services at Dixon Hall, which runs the shelter program at Bond.
But he believes hotel shelters have shown the value of offering people spaces of their own, with a door to close behind them, as they try to help them get back on their feet.
“The shelter system will never go back to what it was before the pandemic. We will never crowd people into dormitory style buildings and bunk beds. That just won’t be appropriate. “
Some occupants and outreach workers are concerned Toronto is taking a similar approach to New York City, which moved this summer to move homeless residents from pandemic hotel rooms to “barrack-style group shelters.” . as reported by the New York Times.
Ashley Ouelette, 34, has been in Bond for months, having come from camp. In older shelters, he expressed concern about the lack of privacy; the hotels felt different and provided supports like laundry and decent meals.
She hopes to find permanent housing by spring. But if the hotel’s leases expire before that’s possible, Ouelette said it likely wouldn’t enter the traditional shelter system.
“I would go back to the streets,” he said.
Earlier this year, the city purchased a hotel-turned-shelter in Chinatown to convert to supportive housing. It has since requested federal funding to buy two more hotels and convert them into affordable housing, but will not reveal the locations until staff confirm funding and “feasibility.”
Not everyone is interested in the idea. Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam has raised concerns about job losses, as well as Toronto’s ability to attract post-pandemic events if the stock of hotels in downtown is reduced. “You can’t have a convention or big meetings on Airbnbs,” he said.
Coun. Meanwhile, Ana Bailão said city staff would not be looking at hotels that typically host the brunt of convention travelers. It is not clear, for now, where the occupants of the safe havens would move if the city bought those properties for conversions.
As of Friday night, 2,586 people in Toronto were sleeping in hotel shelters. “Where are those people going when there simply isn’t enough affordable and supportive housing in the city?” Reycraft says.
Regarding the conversion of hotels into long-term homes, he added: “The challenge, always, is that to renovate, modernize and reuse these spaces, there is a population living there that has to go elsewhere. So it’s this great puzzle. “
Doug Johnson Hatlem, a Sanctuary Ministries social worker, hopes to see the city take bold steps to boost the housing supply after COVID, including but not limited to hotel conversions. He believes that hotels have marked a change in services for the homeless.
“People just need their own places and their own keys,” he said. “I believe that safe havens, beyond the individual lives they have saved, have shown that a different way is possible.”