From the sounds of things, the former Novotel Hotel on The Esplanade will remain a homeless shelter until April. 

Last month, the information was shared at the neighbourhood’s last Community Liaison Committee Meeting. 

“The contract with the Novotel was set to expire on December 31st of this year,” reads a memo sent to residents of the nearby London on the Esplanade condominiums. “Due to continued social distancing requirements still exist, the City continues to need Hotel shelters to house the homeless so have requested an extension to the current contract with the Novotel to April 2022.”

The City of Toronto opened dozens of temporary shelter sites in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure physical distancing was maintained in the shelter system. In February, it announced it would lease the four-star hotel to use the facility as an emergency homeless shelter for the rest of the year. 

But it looks like it will be a while before the property starts welcoming back hotel guests.  

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“Leases, like the one at 45 The Esplanade, have already been extended until the end of 2021. Most hotel providers have indicated willingness to extend leases to at least April 2022, to mitigate the need for transitions during the winter,” confirmed Shelter, Support & Housing Administration Staff at the City of Toronto. 

The City said more details will be shared in the Shelter Infrastructure Plan to Council in late October and on the physical distancing shelter sites web page.

“The safety and security of staff, clients and the neighbouring community is a priority for the City, and ongoing safety planning is a key component of the community engagement process,” says the City. “The shelter is run by Homes First who brings management practices that have proven successful at its other locations. All Homes First staff are trained on de-escalation, conflict resolution and crisis prevention, intervention, and management.”

But, if you ask many frustrated local residents and business owners, it hasn't exactly been smooth sailing on many of the above fronts, as the neighbourhood, as we knew it, spirals into a state of perpetual unrest -- one that's impossible to deny.

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In terms of safety measures, the City has been proactive. It installed security surveillance cameras onsite and has worked collaboratively with Homes First, Toronto Police, and Corporate Security to put practices in place. This includes a security team of four guards and two Community Safety Team officers who provide support inside the shelter and the immediate perimeter of the property and Community Safety Teams who conduct 24/7 patrols from Yonge Street to Parliament Street, and Lakeshore Boulevard East to Richmond Street. 

“All team members are trained to respond to immediate non-police or non-EMS related matters,” says the City. “Teams also patrol ‘hotspots’ identified by the community and pick up needles. Shelter residents themselves also assist with community clean-ups and pick up sharpies and drug paraphernalia.” 

The City’s Community Liaison Committee is made up of representatives from the local community to meet with shelter and City staff to share information, and discuss and collectively problem solve community concerns. 

And they’ve had their concerns. Local residents and business owners have been vocal -- during meetings, in the news, and on social media -- about the changing nature of the neighbourhood due to the arrival of the homeless shelter. Common concerns include discarded needles and human faeces throughout the street, aggressive encounters, and disruptive shouting and other noise. 

As a result of the conversations, the City has recently implemented additional safety measures. This includes the addition of two Community Safety Team officers stationed immediately outside 45 The Esplanade every day for 12 hours per day, security personnel who perform hourly documented patrols throughout 45 The Esplanade, and two 24-hour paid-duty police officers who work to augment security inside and outside the shelter. 

Police cruisers are now a neighbourhood staple as a result.

“City of Toronto Corporate Security is currently reviewing onsite equipment to determine if there are opportunities to enhance monitoring of the site. Homes First is also doing an assessment on how they can optimize available space inside 45 The Esplanade to provide additional supportive and recreational programming for those that use the location,” says the City. 

The need for homeless shelters remains as high as ever with the removal of encampments at city parks, the looming temperature drop, and the continuing pandemic. Nobody can argue that. The hope is that the upgraded measures introduced by the city can bring a little more peace and order to the surrounding streets for everyone.

The heavy police presence in the neighbourhood in recent weeks is undoubtedly an impossible-to-ignore safety blanket for shelter clients and concerned local residents. Of course, it may also be called a bandaid for a far deeper systemic failure and broken system.

But that's for another day.