London's newest supportive housing complex welcomes first tenants

It used to be the Embassy Hotel, the landmark music venue. Now, the east London site on Dundas Street is known as the Embassy Commons, a 72-unit apartment building dedicated to housing vulnerable Londoners.

The supportive housing development at 744 Dundas St. was unveiled by Indwell, the Christian charity that builds and operates this type of housing, on Thursday, just as tenants started settling into their new homes.

“It’s a dream come true, really,” Graham Cubitt, Indwell's director of projects and development, said of the Embassy's completion.

“We've known for a long time that the need for what we can deliver is real. We know how to create new supportive housing,” he said, adding the process began four years ago and “now we’re here.”

About half of the tenants have already moved in, with full occupancy expected by mid-January, Indwell officials said during a media tour of the site on Thursday.

The 50,000-square-foot (4,500-square-metre) building at the corner of Dundas and English streets contains two common rooms, three commercial spaces, staff offices as well as the 72 affordable units, with an average size of 450 sq. ft. (40.5 sq. m).

Forty-two of those units located one side of the building are part of Indwell’s “enhanced support” program that assists tenants struggling with mental health, physical health and addiction, Cubitt said.

“We have nurses on staff, we have addictions support on staff, and we have food security, and health and nutrition on staff, so that we can bring in supports around people who otherwise are facing those real health barriers to stable housing,” he said.

The apartments units are “reflecting people’s income,” meaning one bedrooms rent for $570 a month as base rent. Five of the 30 units on the other side building facing English Street are two-bedroom, which are rented for about $840 a month.

Most of the units are accessible and 10 are considered “barrier-free,” meaning their rooms are designed with accommodations such as enough turning room for someone using a wheelchair, low countertops, and benches and bars built within the washrooms, said Natasha Thuemler, regional manager of Indwell.

The housing development recently received the colourful addition of two murals that grace the facades. Part of a collaboration with the London Clay Arts Centre, and led by artist Beth Turnbull-Morrish, the mosaic outside the Dundas Street entrance is comprised of more than 10,000 hand-stamped tiles made by volunteers, including tenants and staff.

One of the three commercial spaces belongs to the Squeaky Wheel Bike Co-Op, which aims to teach and encourage tenants, along with other Londoners, how to fix their own bikes, its manager, Jensen Didulo, said.

“We do that by accepting donations and having volunteers take some of the donated bicycles. What we can fix, we’ll fix, and what we can’t, we’ll turn into spare parts,” he said.

A priority for Indwell was ensuring the commercial spaces had a “social impact” that benefited not only tenants but also the broader London community, Cubitt noted as he led the way to the next business, Edgar and Joe's Café.

“One of our roles is to be able to open a full functioning restaurant to be able to service the individuals that live in this neighborhood and work within this building,” said Neil Burnett, senior manager of food and hospitality for Goodwill Industries, which created the social-enterprise cafe.

“But we also have a mission to be able to serve a healthy meal to the individuals and tenants within the building once a day,” he said. The café is slated to open in January.

Indwell works with local shelters and agencies, including the Canadian Mental Health Association, Atlohsa Family Healing Services and the London InterCommunity Health Centre, to determine who qualifies for the apartments and to provide all-around supports to those tenants.

“When we first moved to London, we did have an expression of interest, so we do still have a wait list that we are working through,” said Thuemler.

“We’re really looking to collaborate as a system to address the homelessness crisis in the community.”

The goal is to work with partners rather than duplicating their work, Cubitt said, adding many of the agencies “get stuck” in the support they can provide because there are few places for Londoners to find stable housing.

“We don't have the capacity in our community to keep putting more emergency solutions in place, and we need long-term, stable solutions,” he said.

Indwell’s approach to providing permanent housing is working, Cubitt said. “It’s an approach built on the capacity of other community agencies like InterCommunity Health. It’s really a systems approach but on an individual response.”

cleon@postmedia.com

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Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press