AT ISSUE: Displaced families continue to call...
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May 24, 2011  |  Vote 0    0

AT ISSUE: Displaced families continue to call Kingston Road motels home

Though numbers have dwindled, many still housed by city in motels

Scarborough Mirror
By Mike Adler

It's Saturday afternoon at the Lido Motel and Charmaine's six-year-old son is riding circles in the parking lot on the small bicycle Tracy McDowell brought.

"It's raining but he will ride it all day," Charmaine says.

The Scarborough woman and her four children have been at the Lido since they were evicted from their apartment Dec. 1. They are part of the overflow of the City of Toronto shelter system.

For 24 years, the city has put homeless families in motels, and in the late 1990s, 1,100 people a night were housed in this way, some in motels as far away as Hamilton.

The practice was worrying residents of communities along motel strips of Kingston Road, where, said a 1999 city report, "up to one-third" of school populations were temporary and those children were likely to leave after some weeks or months.

And because at times more than half the homeless families were newcomers to Canada, the motels attracted more odious critics. In 1997, mask-wearing skinheads were arrested after demonstrating outside the Lido, then sheltering Roma refugees from the Czech Republic, while carrying signs that read, "Honk if you hate Gypsies."

But while others have been hurtful or wary of the city's motel program - now down to just three Scarborough locations - there have long been people like McDowell, who visit regularly and do whatever they can to help.

A member of the Heron Park Baptist Church, McDowell started approaching the motels on her own. "I don't really go representing any church. I go representing Jesus Christ," she said in an interview.

One family at the Lido was from Romania and spoke no English, but McDowell communicated with them just the same. "We still connect. When they look at me, they know I care."

Once McDowell met a woman at the Lido with three kids and a dog she had known growing up in downtown Toronto. "After three weeks she got placed (in an apartment) and I helped move her."

Not judging and never doubting that people housed at the Lido "are just like me," McDowell has a remarkable talent for finding things they need in other people's trash.

Each useful object in McDowell's path is a life lesson from God, she said. "It's my calling."

At her West Rouge home this month, McDowell had push and pedal toys, the bicycle (chain a bit rusted, but the brakes and tires good), tricycles, a doll carriage and other toys for the Lido, all of them found outside. In her garage are dressers, bed frames, tables, strollers and pop-up tents for children.

"They're in good, decent shape. You want to give them nice stuff."

McDowell some years ago joined the Caring Alliance, whose Adopt-a-Motel program advises people to go in teams of two and meet first with an experienced visitor.

At first, the Alliance was composed of public health nurses who used to visit the homeless in motels, and school nurses caring for transient children, but teachers and nurses got their churches involved, said Eglin Hines, a retired nurse invited to join in 2001 or 2002.

Part of a group of six that sends two people to the Maple Leaf Motel once a week, Hines said 22 local churches were involved then, perhaps 10 or 12 now.

Hines said many people in her church, Scarborough Bluffs United, are "downsizing" and willing to donate furniture and such things as bed linens and pots and pans for when the motel families leave. Sometimes they give cash or, in winter, mittens and gloves church members knit themselves.

There are fewer billeted families now at the Maple Leaf, eight or nine compared to 20 or so a decade ago, and the large number of refugees has disappeared, Hines said.

"I think we all feel they would be better off elsewhere in some other home setting," she said, adding there are "unsavoury types" and rumoured drug activity in the area she wishes families, especially children, weren't exposed to.

The city's motel placement has indeed shrunk, down from 405 in 2008 to just 160 people at the beginning of this year, but officials say the motels are still needed to keep flexibility in the shelter system.

The motels worked as "an emergency stop-gap" before more city shelters were built, but shelters evolved into places where people can get treatments for diseases such as alcoholism, and not all shelter clients have such needs, said Joe Mihevc, a councillor on the community development and recreation committee.

"You can't put the homeless all into the same basket," said Mihevc, but added it would make sense to build more affordable and supportive housing across the city rather than keeping refugees and other displaced families in rented Scarborough rooms.

Cuts to the shelter and housing budgets expected under Mayor Rob Ford will likely increase the number of motel billets, Mihevc said.

"This is a mayor who thinks things can be done cheaply and doesn't want homeless people around, period."

Meanwhile, Charmaine and her children, living out of bags in a cramped room, buying meals and other items on a city allowance of $8.30 per person per day, are grateful to McDowell and the other people who have come by offering help.

Like others at the Lido, Charmaine works, holding jobs as a child and youth worker and with a local after-school program. She wants to stay in Scarborough.

"If I could get a co-op with a rent subsidy, I would be OK," she said.

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