Moving Up

Fort York Apartments and Transitional Residence, Toronto, Ontario

Joe Lobko Architect Inc. with Michael Spaziani Architect Inc.

The problem of homelessness in Ontario is facing a crisis with a significant increase in the number of people entering shelters in Toronto over the past few years. In the Greater Toronto Area, there are approximately 65 shelters in operation, housing over 4,000 people a night. Five of these shelters are operated by the City of Toronto and the rest are run by a variety of community agencies. One of these shelters, the Fort York Apartments and Transitional Residences offers an interesting case study of a project that empowers those members of the population most vulnerable to homelessness.

Situated along Bathurst and Front Streets, the Fort York Residence provides transitional housing, shelter and employment programs for homeless men who are ready to move toward independent living. The residence is unusual in that it has been directly operated and purpose built by the City of Toronto. The residence contains 24 self- contained, transitional bachelor-type housing units as well as 74 dormitory-style shelter beds. It also provides a workshop and meeting space, a computer lab and community rooms such as dining hall, television room and a smokers’ lounge. Potential residents are referred from community-based agencies serving homeless men, so the shelter is not designed to be an emergency shelter. The facility is intended to accommodate men who are in a stable enough position where they can transition into more permanent and sustainable living arrangements.

Programming and residency opportunities are designed to support each client’s case plan, which focuses on finding and maintaining employment, educational advancement, financial planning and community participation through volunteer work. Once inside the shelter, there is a resource room with printers, computers and faxes that will assist the residents in seeking employment and moving up toward more permanent and sustainable work. The building is also designed to provide housing for people for a period of several weeks up to nine months.

The dorms are divided into 2 to 8-bed sections. The large rooms are broken up with low partitions that give users a sense of privacy. Lockers ensure that clients can maintain a sense of security with respect to their belongings. This design strategy is unusual, as many shelters consist of a single large room sleeping 30 to 40 men. On the third floor of the shelter, there are 24 bachelor units, or single-room occupancy units (SROs) that are intended for those who are employed. The purpose of the SROs is to allow a sense of community before the tenant moves on to a more independent long-term housing situation. In these apartments, 30 percent of the tenant’s income is spent on renting these 250 square foot units. After a nine-month tenancy limit, the SRO residents are expected to leave the residence and find longer-term affordable housing. The mix of housing types in the facility may also serve to engender a mentoring program amongst those facing varying levels of housing requirements.

The siting of the building is important in that it presents a public face to the street. While the future of the extension of Front Street to connect to the Gardiner Expressway is uncertain, a westward extension of Front Street along the residence is an eventuality that the architects understood when siting the residence. There is a porch/ trellis element running the length of the building, noteworthy for presenting a community face to the project. Situated as somewhat of a buffer between the Front Street Extension and the residential community to the north, in combination with the provision of a child-care centre associated with the project, the building’s approval process was somewhat simplified as there was little community opposition to the development.

Financing for the project came from a capital contribution from the Government of Canada’s Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative of around $3 million while the Government of Ontario provides operating subsidies through hostel per diem funding. Other factors contributing to the success of the project include the insight and efforts of the City of Toronto’s Shelter division and through the Let’s Build program also established by the City to assist in the planning and development of affordable housing projects.

The existence and development of the design for the residence should not be taken for granted. Politicians often consider shelters for the homeless as a temporary condition that is meant to be met with a temporary facility. However, the number of homeless and those who are spending more than 50 per cent of their income on rent (and thus considered “vulnerable to homelessness”) is increasing in Toronto. Therefore, the need to build adequate housing facilities for these populations is not a temporary situation and if anything, deserves to be aggressively addressed by politicians.

Because the Fort York project is designed to be a long-term element in the city, Joe Lobko had recommended that the shelter be integrated into the public space of the city, and not be considered as a project that should avoid any public expression through the adoption of an architecture that incorporates pre-fabricated buildings to be situated on the fringes of urbanity. And while the residence is representative of a modest architectural expression, its intent is noteworthy for its clear and positive position with respect to providing housing for homeless men. Lobko believes that if housing needs are not linked to a long-term affordable housing condition, then a revolving door syndrome results where certain people will return to a condition of homelessness. Achieving sustainable and affordable housing conditions for the homeless depends on the provision of successful social programs combined with facilities that allow individuals to continue their lives with a sense of pride and dignity. Indeed, the residence provides an essential step along a transitionary period that begins with a situation of homelessness and leads toward a stable position where long-term affordable housing can be sought.

Client: City of Toronto

Architect team: Joe Lobko, Kenneth Chow, Jamie Adair, Peter Sampson, Luciana Pires, Aaron Finbow, Michael Spaziani, Bruce Fraser, Joe Caricari, Siamak Sanie.

Structural: AMR Engineering Ltd.

Mechanical/Electrical: Lam and Associates Ltd.

Landscape: Vertechs Design

Interiors: Joe Lobko Architect Inc.

Area: 2,400 square metres

Budget: $4 million

Completion: December 2003

Photography: Volker Seding