Over the summer, a west-end Toronto church joined its local community in supporting evicted residents of a nearby Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) complex. On May 27, a ceiling collapsed and injured a tenant at Swansea Mews at Windermere Avenue and the Queensway, near St. Olave, Swansea. Following the incident, some residents of the Mews were told they would have to vacate their homes for a few weeks. But further investigation by structural engineers revealed that all units in the complex were unsafe, and the remaining residents were ordered to evacuate.
In total, the evacuation orders displaced 114 families. TCHC placed residents in temporary accommodation in hotels, college dorms and other social housing complexes across the city. Many were placed far from Swansea Mews and their jobs, healthcare providers, families and support networks.
The local community immediately rallied around the displaced families. On June 20, the Rev. Rob Mitchell, incumbent of St. Olave’s, attended a Zoom meeting of community organizations, churches, agencies and members of the Swansea Mews community. Swansea Mews is within St. Olave’s geographical bounds, and one family from the housing complex has been attending the church for more than 20 years. All four of their children were confirmed there.
Also attending the meeting were Paul Scrivener, a former warden, and Janice Biehn Douglas, the current rector’s warden. Ms. Douglas is also the communications and marketing coordinator for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF). “It was very emotional,” she says. “The memory of what had happened was very fresh. I was struck by the similarity with people who have escaped fire or floods.”
This striking similarity to the evacuees PWRDF usually serves led Ms. Douglas to wonder if the organization could also help the residents of Swansea Mews. Mr. Mitchell applied for and was successful in securing a $5,000 emergency grant from PWRDF. St. Olave’s leadership consulted with the Swansea Mews community about how the money should be used. “It’s about working with the community,” says Ms. Douglas. “It’s about what they need, not what we think they need. And those needs are changing all the time. We want to support them to advocate for themselves.”
St. Olave’s donated the grant to the Stone Soup Network (SSN), a project of Windermere United Church that connects businesses wanting to share products and services with local community members who need them. SSN has long been active in the Swansea Mews community and wider neighbourhood, and residents of the housing complex sit on the SSN advisory board.
Kate Hoffmann, local director for SSN, explained that residents faced unanticipated expenses following the eviction. Some had added travel expenses, while others were paying for storage or pet care. Many residents on low or fixed incomes didn’t have a financial cushion to the rely on. Knowing that the wider neighbourhood was also keen to support the displaced families, SSN launched a campaign to raise $114,000, or $1,000 for each family. The fundraiser was a concrete way for neighbours to respond quickly, while also allowing the families to use the money in a way that met their individual needs.
While the fundraiser fell short of its goal, SSN still managed to raise $92,000, and the money was distributed to the residents at the end of August. “The gift from St. Olave’s really helped and spurred others to donate,” says Ms. Hoffmann. “Getting this close to our goal is great and will have a significant impact on the families.”
St. Olave’s also organized a cardboard box drive and partnered with Parkdale Golden Age Foundation to provide residents with hot meals. As Mr. Mitchell put it, the response was about “demonstrating our concern and love.”
Despite this outpouring of support, it will take years to complete the necessary upgrades to Swansea Mews, and many residents face an uncertain future. “This is Toronto,” says Mr. Mitchell. “It’s not like you can just find another place to rent. There’s not enough housing, and those on low income feel the brunt. Public housing is dilapidated, and Toronto Community Housing budgets are stretched.”
Mr. Mitchell also spoke of how years of neglect by TCHC was evident when he and other members of St. Olave’s went to Swansea Mews to drop off cardboard boxes. “The covered parking was jacked up, and residents said it had been that way for years. It spoke to a general attitude.”
But Mr. Mitchell has also been heartened by the response from the broader community. “People see the housing project as part of the community. It’s been nice to see the compassion of the community.”