TORONTO -- Politicians and residents in midtown Toronto are voicing concern after the lease for a temporary shelter to house vulnerable people amid the COVID-19 pandemic was extended for two years, a decision that they say they were not notified of.

The Roehampton Hotel, a previously vacant building located near Mount Pleasant Road and Eglinton Avenue, as well as two other buildings slated to be torn down in the area on Broadway Avenue, were designated as temporary shelters to help Toronto’s homeless population as the novel coronavirus swept across the city.

The two buildings on Broadway Avenue are expected to close on Sept. 7 as a condo project for the site moves forward, which means that the 149 residents who were moved there will have to find a new place to live.

Meanwhile, the city has extended the lease for the Roahampton Hotel for two years, prompting concern from residents who say they’re worried about what it will mean for the area.

“We were not informed as a community, we were not prepared as a community,” area resident Alishia Sala said.

The hotel is located in close proximity to numerous public schools and daycares. In security video of the area captured by a neighbourhood daycare, one man can be seen injecting drugs with a needle in the parking lot, and another was captured walking between the buildings and defecating.

Daycare worker Monice Morenzie of Midtown Tiny Tots said the whole premises had to be checked after a needle was found.

“Now imagine if a kid was playing and we didn't see that and a child said ‘Ms. Morenzie look at this needle.’ What are we supposed to do?”

Two school board trustees, Shelley Laskin and Rachel Chernos Lin, said in a letter to Toronto Mayor John Tory on July 22 that they have received daily reports of loitering, public urination and “leftover drug paraphernalia” on school property.

They said that caretakers at North Toronto Collegiate Institute said they collected and disposed of “a huge amount of syringes.”

“Police attended and spoke to the principal about the need for increased vigilance once students are back in the building,” the letter reads.

“We understand the need for emergency physically-distanced shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic and want to ensure vulnerable Torontonians are supported. However, we are extremely disappointed no foresight was given to the ramifications of this decision on the safety of children attending local public schools. Our schools face substantial challenges from COVID-19 as well, and we have a duty to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff and students, who will now face many additional issues come September.”

In a letter sent to the local Business Improvement Area, the mayor said that he has put in a request to the city’s police chief Mark Saunders for an increased presence in the neighbourhood, and has taken action to help install more security cameras in the area, increase garbage collection, and increase the size of Community Safety Teams at each shelter site.

The mayor also said that “clients at the Roehampton Hotel will be held accountable for negative behaviours or criminal acts, up to and including discharge from the program.”

“While we hope that will not be the case, the city will not tolerate dangerous or disruptive conduct that will cause further negative impact on the community.”

Councillors ‘blindsided’ by decision to extend lease

The two city councillors for the area have issued statements saying that they believe there should have been more transparency in the city’s decision to extend the lease at the Roehampton Hotel, arguing that concerns brought forward by residents “should not simply be dismissed as ‘NIMBY’.”

“In no context is it acceptable to leave needles on our streets and school yards, harass people, break into stores, steal, defecate in public or make people feel intimidated and unsafe. I believe this is inarguable and cannot be accepted as the status quo,” Toronto-St. Paul Councillor Josh Matlow said in a statement.

Matlow argued that he continues to support the use of the three midtown buildings as emergency shelters to help vulnerable populations struggling amid the pandemic, but that the change in duration for their use should have triggered additional steps by the city.

“When I learned about the lease agreement, I immediately asked city staff about what their communications plan to the public would be. I was told that they weren’t putting out prior notice on any of their sites throughout the city during the emergency. I strongly disagree with that approach as it ultimately leads to less transparency, and more anxiety.”

Ward 15 City Councillor Jaye Robinson said that she was “completely blindsided” by the decision to open a shelter at the hotel and only learned of it in a news release issued to the public.

“I have spent my years in office fighting for transparency and community engagement at City Hall – the process undertaken to open this shelter goes against both of these principles,” she wrote on a community Facebook group. “The Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood was already at a breaking point. Construction is constant, and there are not nearly enough parks and public amenities to support the unprecedented pace of development.”

“Protecting vulnerable populations in the time of COVID-19 is important, but I have serious concerns about the suitability of this location.”

A virtual community meeting has since been organized for Aug. 19 to discuss the neighbourhood changes.