After nearly being forced to leave the Queen Street east neighbourhood in 2014, the Red Door Family Shelter opened a new space at its original Leslieville address on Thursday, thanks to efforts from the community, city council and a condo developer.
“The most heartwarming part of this entire story is the fact that this neighbourhood, this community, wanted this shelter to be here,” says Mayor John Tory. “I’m spending quite a bit of my time making sure that people embrace supportive housing that we’re needing to put in place to make sure that we don’t have to have encampments, that we can have much better places to have people housed and get the support that they need.”
The Red Door has given emergency shelter and support to women and children affected by intimate partner abuse or a housing crisis, as well as refugees, since 1982. The Leslieville shelter was founded by volunteers and originally housed in the WoodGreen United Church. When that building was sold seven years ago, the community rallied to ensure the organization could continue its work.
“Four months pregnant, I knocked at the Red Door, with my daughter in my arms. I felt welcome.”
“There were 50,000 people who signed a petition that said keep the Red Door on Queen Street East, in its original home,” says Toronto-Danforth councillor Paula Fletcher. Fletcher herself was honored with a plaque from the organization, commemorating the work she did to lead support efforts at City Council. At Thursday’s opening ceremony, she thanked the neighbourhood for stepping up, “from everyone who put a sign in the window saying ‘Save the Red Door’ to the little girls at the Leslieville school making tiny bracelets at the fun fair to sell for a dollar to raise money for the Red Door.”
“That has meant the world to our families,” says Red Door executive director Carol Latchford. “Being part of a community can make all the difference between feeling alone, or feeling loved, and today we feel the love.”
Helping 350 families a year, the Red Door says it’s one of the largest family shelters in the city. When it began, its leadership notes that it was one of just two such organizations in all of Toronto. One of its clients from those early days was at the reopening to explain the impact the shelter’s help had on her life.
“Four months pregnant, I knocked at the Red Door, with my daughter in my arms. I felt welcome, and people were so nice to me,” says Louise Blais, who arrived at the shelter in 1987 to escape intimate partner violence. She says the Red Door helped take care of her child while she kept studying and working. She eventually was able to finish school, start a career, and buy a house of her own. “My life was transformed, and other women can have their lives transformed.”
After relocating to Gerrard Street during construction, the shelter is back at its original address, part of Toronto’s first-ever building combining a private condo and a shelter. Owned by the City, the shelter’s 20,000 square-foot space has four floors and 100 beds, including private bedrooms and bathrooms for families. There’s also a kitchen, playground and outdoor activity area for kids. The space is also decorated with art by local Indigenous muralist Philip Cote that depicts the Seven Grandfather Teachings.
“This is going to be more than just an ordinary building of its kind,” says Tory. “I think it will allow this special place to be a neighbour in the true sense of the word, and for us to build community in the true sense.”
Tory highlighted the public-private partnership with Harhay Development, which allowed Red Door to stay in its neighbourhood, as an innovative way of serving the community.
“This is a great example of responsible urban intensification in this city. Here we have a community service embedded in a mid-rise context, that’s really rare,” says Chris Harhay, president of Harhay Development. He notes that in addition to the shelter and the condo units, there’s also retail and a public parking lot on site. He adds that his company made a point of ensuring many of the same quality materials and trimmings used in the condos were used in the shelter.
“It’s an excellent example of what can be done in urban design and urban development,” he says, “and should be a model going forward.”