Beaverton is so small it doesn’t even have its own doctor. Residents want to know why it’s been picked for a 50-unit housing project for the homeless

·6 min read

A proposal to construct 50 units of housing for the homeless in a small Ontario town has sparked heated questions about whether a community of roughly 2,800 can support the needs of its new residents.

The project planned for Beaverton, on the east shore of Lake Simcoe, a little more than 100 km from Toronto, was greenlit this summer by Durham’s regional council — on an expedited timeline, due to the needs of its homeless population during COVID-19.

The proposal had the backing of the local mayor in the township of Brock, Debbie Bath-Hadden, as well as the regional councillor. But a number of the town’s residents and the four other Brock councillors are now pushing for the project to be put on hold.

The pitch, they believe, is just too large for a town of their size — and many don’t think Beaverton has the social services to support its integration. They’ve asked for more studies, community consultation and increases in available services before the housing project proceeds.

“The last doctor retired, and we’ve been trying to attract one doctor back to our town and not having any luck. We don’t have any mental health counsellors, we don’t have any social workers,” said Peter Bornemisa, 61, who moved to Beaverton two years ago from Whitby.

He and several other residents have banded together in opposition to the project moving ahead as planned.

“They’re going to be moving people with serious drug and substance abuse issues — and while we agree they need help, they won’t get the help here,” he said.

The proposal calls for what’s known as supportive housing, which offers help to those with mental health challenges, addictions, or other difficulties who may otherwise end up in homeless shelters. The region says that placing the site in Beaverton will provide formerly homeless residents with a “calm, rural setting” and a community they can be a part of.

Durham's social services commissioner, Stella Danos-Papaconstantinou, acknowledged that the region's more northern and rural areas have fewer services, medical and otherwise.

The idea, she said, was to create a service hub next to the housing site, for use by anyone in the community — on top of wraparound services for residents like on-site meals, mental health and addiction supports, medical care, financial assistance and employment services.

The hub idea is why the region proposed 50 units. "If you have fewer clients, it would be harder to attract and potentially retain the services," said Danos-Papaconstantinou.

But township councillor Mike Jubb said that it shouldn't be a trade-off. "Why aren't we provided services regardless of this — that we've been fihting for?" Jubb asked.

Coun. Claire Doble echoed the same sentiment. “It doesn’t feel fair that we’re being dangled services to support this project,” Doble said.

Not all details have been ironed out for the Beaverton development.

Though provincial funding has been secured, Danos-Papaconstantinou noted that the region is still working with the township to obtain a building permit. The plan is to use modular construction, similar to a pair of supportive housing projects underway in Toronto. The region’s hope is to have the housing project ready by September next year, with the COVID-19 pandemic given by the region as the reason for “more aggressive timelines.”

Beaverton was chosen after the region looked at other empty, publicly owned sites, said Danos-Papaconstantinou.

A long, narrow site in Pickering beside railway tracks was rejected because of its configuration. A site in Clarington was deemed too small. The region considered other options: hotels and motels up for grabs, empty school board properties. But in the end, owing to a combination of size, configuration and existing zoning rules, they settled on Beaverton.

The project is expected to cost roughly $13.5 million.

Much of the back-and-forth about the project's merits has concerned its proposed size.

“When we heard the rumour we thought, ‘no, no, something of that scale — certainly not for Beaverton,’” said Paul Nelson, 73, who has lived in town for seven years.

He told the Star he’d support a smaller version of the project, with five or six spots for those in need from their own area. Other residents expressed a similar sentiment.

But Danos-Papaconstantinou said she believes the pushback against the housing project isn’t so much about the size as it is a characterization of the residents that would move in.

“They believe there will be 50 people panhandling, 50 people homeless, 50 people at the meth clinic that already exists in Beaverton,” she said. “What I’m hearing from the people is, 50 of these people, that’s the concern.”

Some Beaverton residents have suggested that the housing project could increase crime or disruptions in town, but Cria Pettingill, a Brock councillor who supports slowing the project and reassessing it, said the community couldn’t presume any uptick in crime would happen.

Homelessness is less visible in northern Durham than areas like Ajax, Pickering or Oshawa, Pettingill said — a sentiment echoed by Mona Emond, executive director of a local housing support organization called North House that operates in Brock, Scugog and Uxbridge.

But Emond also said that North House had seen more requests for help obtaining or keeping housing between January and September this year than in all of 2019. As of October, the staff at North House knew of 15 people without shelter in North Durham, Emond said, and they plan to submit applications for some of their clients to live at the future Beaverton site.

Ted Smith, the regional councillor in Brock who has supported the Beaverton project, said he believes this kind of development sparks issues among locals regardless of where it’s planned.

“I think it’s a fear of the unknown,” he said. The project may not operate perfectly smoothly right away, he cautioned, but overall he believes any issues that arise will be minimal.

To Danos-Papaconstantinou, the supportive housing site is a chance to make sure those struggling to stay housed in Durham Region don’t “fall through the cracks” – with the hope that many of its future residents can later transition into more independent living.

An information session is scheduled for next week, where locals will be able to air their concerns.

But Nelson, the 73-year-old resident, said that the region should bring the services that don’t currently exist in Beaverton to the community before starting construction.

“It’s a failure for the people that it’s intended to help,” he said, “never mind the community.”

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star