• Lily Cheng

Novotel Follow Up Letter: Proceed With Caution

Dear Councillor Filion and Ms. Farrow,

As I campaign to represent Willowdale on City Council, I hear more and more from neighbors who are concerned that the city is moving full speed ahead with a plan without pausing for genuine community consultation and to hear our concerns. We all want to help refugees fleeing war and oppression, but that does not mean that the city should blindly implement new measures without considering all of the implications and addressing neighbourhood concerns.

  1. 5 years is not an emergency solution. Refugees and refugee claimants are arriving in greater numbers and the city is saying Novotel at Mel Lastman Square is an emergency measure. Any emergency solution should not last for 5 years. Spending $79 million on this initiative is not a wise use of funds because it does not result in a sustainable solution. Rather than spending $79 million over 5 years, there should be exit points in the Novotel contract that would allow 50% of these funds to be invested in building long term solutions. Charities with a proven track record in housing and supporting refugees and refugee claimants should be approached about expanding their capacity and the timeline needed to be able to care for 700 people (or determine what is their upper limit). A few years ago, several such agencies formed a coalition and previously approached the city for support in expanding capacity which was not approved. Could this proposal be re-examined? If interested, I can connect you to someone from the coalition.

  2. Putting refugees in a hotel is not necessarily the best model of support. My family and I worked with nine other families from North York Moms and helped to sponsor a refugee family. It was a tremendous amount of work. I can’t imagine it being done effectively on such a large scale in a hotel. The necessary ratio of settlement workers to refugees tends to increase with scale, thus reducing the level of support available. A wiser approach would be smaller scale supportive housing models where part of the surrounding community can be engaged to augment these experienced charities to help the newcomers with English, connect them with local jobs, and help integrate children in the local schools.

  3. The city does not have a satisfactory track record for running hotel shelters. In a recent audit of a hotel shelter for homeless people at Novotel on the Esplanade, it was discovered that $13million dollars was overspent over 2 years. It is clear that the scale of this type of project is difficult for city staff to manage. ​​https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toronto-hotel-shelter-overpayment-auditor-1.6473851. A calculation done by City Councillor Anthony Perruzza estimated the cost to be $92K per homeless person per year.

  4. The city needs to stop herding the hurting. Large scale congregate solutions for the homeless, addicts, those living in poverty and refugees is not a sustainable model and has negative impacts on those receiving help as well as the surrounding community as seen in the area surrounding 5800 Yonge St. We need to look at smaller scale supportive housing models where part of the solution includes the surrounding community. I think Willowdalers would be much more amenable to smaller scale homes where residents can be well supported by agencies and the surrounding communities. If the city has $92K to spend per homeless person per year on a hotel shelter, surely it has the financial resources to do this better. In my work with NeighbourLink North York I see first hand the impact of a large group of people who have struggled with trauma and abuse living in close proximity. The result is a high level of conflict and anxiety that does not result in an improvement of circumstances.

I want to stress: Willowdale is a kind and generous community. Given the opportunity, I trust in the desire of Willowdalers to help - refugees, the homeless and any other neighbour in need. However, the project needs to be done at the right scale with a trusted process for community members. The current project has not created this trust building pathway.

Engaging the neighbourhood in being part of the process will be key to the success of this project. This should be an intentional component that extends beyond the good will that has been expressed by the Willowdale Interfaith Council. Engaging volunteers while mitigating risk is a specific activity that requires expertise and infrastructure, not just good will. Based on my experience mobilizing neighbours through the Willowdale Covid Response Network and NeighbourLink North York, there needs to be one staff member dedicated to community engagement and one staff member dedicated to volunteer mobilization for this project to have a chance to have a positive outcome and fulsome community involvement.

Instead of including the neighborhood, and listening to concerns, you have unfairly attacked and maligned those who have expressed concerns, especially me. It is unacceptable for any elected official, but especially someone like you who has known me, my character, and my commitment to Willowdale, to baselessly accuse me of manufacturing lies when I said that women have been harassed, assaulted and threatened since 5800 Yonge Street became a homeless shelter. A few days after the community meeting where you accused me of lying, a North York mom shared that she was punched in the face by a random stranger at Yonge and Finch. I am speaking for neighbors who are not demonizing the homeless, just those who want honest conversation of the impact on our community and discuss openly what can be done to better care for the homeless while ensuring safety of our community members. I’ve heard the phrase, “Every neighbourhood needs to do their part,” as a reason for this shelter, however, this should not happen on the backs of the safety of women, seniors and children in Willowdale.

In conclusion, I would ask that you consider the following possible actions:

  • Explore investing in expanding the capacity of existing refugee supportive housing charities.

  • Add exit clauses to the contract to give the city the opportunity to reallocate funds to more sustainable supports for refugees if a model for scaling services of existing charities becomes available. Given that the cost for room and board is $5666 per month per room for room and board, this is a high amount that is perhaps justifiable for an emergency, but not for 5 years.

  • Request funding for including a Community Engagement Manager and Volunteer Mobilization Manager to support the project to ensure the neighbourhood is able to contribute in meaningful and sustainable ways.

  • Host a Community Safety Townhall regarding 5800 Yonge Street and commit to a similar community engagement pathway as offered for 3 Park Home.

Thank you for your time and attention. I would gratefully appreciate a meeting to further discuss these possibilities and concerns.

Warmest Regards

Lily Cheng

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