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Well, we can’t say we saw this one coming. 

In a seemingly swift change of plans, Toronto's former Novotel on The Esplanade is going back to its hotel roots after operating as a (highly controversial) temporary homeless shelter for nearly two years -- and a lot sooner than expected.

Last time we checked, the shelter was slated to stick around until at least April of next year. After that, we thought it was to become condos (like everything else in the city these days). Late last year, a redevelopment proposal for 45 The Esplanade (the site of the hotel-turned-shelter) was submitted to City of Toronto planners that would see the current eight-storey building replaced with two 36-storey mixed-use towers.

Now, in the talk of the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood, the sprawling real estate at 45 The Esplanade will once again operate as a hotel come 2023.

In the thick of the pandemic, the City of Toronto reduced capacity at existing city shelters and opened up 40 temporary shelter sites to accommodate physical distancing. One of them took over the prime downtown real estate of the four-star Novotel location in February 2021. The lease on the this shelter has been extended a handful of times since. There are currently 25 temporary shelter sites still open across the city. But they too are beginning to close their doors.  

In a press release issued yesterday, the City of Toronto said it will open up shelter spaces by reducing physical distancing requirements at other shelters. It says all clients of the shelter at 45 The Esplanade will be relocated by the end of December.

homeless shelter

“The site at 45 The Esplanade will be the third temporary shelter location to decommission in 2022 because the property owner will re-start hotel operations in 2023,” reads the release. “This shelter program will close to new admissions on October 12, and the City, in partnership with its operating partner, Homes First Society, will work with residents to develop individual relocation plans: which could include transition to permanent housing or a move to another shelter. All resident relocations will be completed before December 31, 2022.”

For many neighbourhood residents, the news comes as a pleasant surprise. The shelter has admittedly turned the neighbourhood on its head, with impossible-to-ignore increases in crime, disturbances, public intoxication and drug use, arson, violence, garbage, noise…and the list goes on. The sad reality is there's a collective sigh of relief in the neighbourhood today from fed-up residents.

Last year, a local resident who lives in the condo buildings across the street from 45 The Esplanade took to TikTok to share her grievances. The post went viral, thanks in part to fellow frustrated residents and business owners chiming in and sharing it. 

While the news will inevitably come as a tough blow to some shelter clients, the City highlighted how the temporary shelters served their purpose of providing short-term accommodation to people during the pandemic, but that the longer-term solution involved permanent housing with supports. Not just talk, the City has recently purchased three pieces of real estate -- 65 Dundas St. E., 222 Spadina Ave., and 4626 Kingston Rd. -- to convert into affordable and supportive homes.

Homeless shelter 3

“Given current pressures on the system, as well as an expected rise in demand as we move into the winter months, and as directed by City Council in April 2022, the City will begin to introduce a safe and moderate increase to capacity in the base shelter system,” said the City said in the release. This will open up another 500 beds at Toronto shelters, where "rigorous infection, prevention and control measures will remain in place.”

Still, the reality remains that the City's shelter system can't keep up with the demand -- something that increased with the pandemic. The shuttering of the shelter at 45 The Esplanade comes not long after the City announced the (controversial) closure of the temporary shelter at the Bond Hotel with its purchase of the property and plans to turn the space into a rental unit "for a range of incomes." Not surprisingly, the announcement has been met with backlash from advocacy groups and residents.

Undoubtedly, this isn't the last we'll hear of the fate of the real estate at 45 The Esplanade, as passionate voices begin to take to social media to slam the move.

While the local St. Lawrence Market may be glad to see their less fortunate neighbours pack their bags, the sad lingering reality will remain: the city's out-of-control homeless problem isn't going to correct itself. And, while three new permanent housing buildings with social and addiction supports are a step in the right direction, we have a long and challenging road ahead.

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