You can fight city hall. That’s what the parish of St. Matthias, Bellwoods learned this summer after receiving a notice of termination of a longstanding lease with the City of Toronto to use Bellwoods House, the former rectory, as a 10-bed women’s shelter. The church received notice on June 23 that the lease would be terminated by July 31, with no reason given. A teleconference was arranged the next day with city staff and church representatives.
After learning of the staff’s determination to shut down the program due to reduced numbers during the pandemic and a change in demographics, the parish swung into action. The Rev. Bob Bettson, interim priest-in-charge, called Councillor Joe Cressy’s office to outline the situation. Mr. Bettson also talked to Carolyn Wong, a nearby resident who has supported the shelter, and she conveyed the concerns of community members to Councillor Cressy’s staff.
The result was a motion to city council tabled by Councillor Cressy, and Councillor Mike Layton, who used to represent the Trinity-Bellwoods area. They asked council to pause the process of terminating the lease and review future options for the city in providing programs at Bellwoods House – either a new permanent shelter or another housing program.
Two days before council met in mid-July, the church received another notice from city staff rescinding the termination of the lease. So instead of losing a tenant, the way was paved for council to adopt the motion and embark on a full study of new options. In September, representatives from St. Matthias were set to meet with city representatives, including the councillors, to take next steps in determining the future use of Bellwoods House. The process will also involve Wendy Pearson of the diocese’s Property Resources department, since the former rectory is held by the parish in trust for the diocese.
Bellwoods House is listed on the City of Toronto website as a long-term shelter for women over 50 who have experienced homelessness for a lengthy period. It has 24-hour-a-day staff to work individually with women on their challenges. The clients come from the city’s Women’s Residence.
As a small shelter, Bellwoods House has made a real difference in women’s lives. One resident who wrote in support of retaining the shelter mentioned the difference from the large Women’s Residence, with its issues of drug and alcohol addiction on the part of some residents. At Bellwoods House, residents have a living room to read, watch TV and socialize, and they’re able to join in cooking. That’s how she met the Rev. Krista Fry, a deacon at St. Matthias, who was visiting the house. Ms. Fry became a new friend. The resident lived at Bellwoods House for six months then found an apartment in the area.