It could be sometime in March before people displaced by a fire at an Anglican-affiliated subsidized housing facility in Toronto will be able to return, a church leader involved in the project says.
A visitor to the supported living building at All Saints Church-Community Centre died when a fire tore through the building in the early morning of Dec. 13. Two residents who were hospitalized due to smoke inhalation are recovering well, says All Saints’ priest-in-charge the Rev. Alison Falby, who also sits on the board of the housing non-profit which leases the building and land from the diocese of Toronto. But other residents of the building, which houses people who have experienced, or at risk of, homelessness, are still displaced.
The fire was contained entirely within one of the units on the third floor. Concrete walls prevented it from spreading despite being a particularly hot blaze, says All Saints’ housing support worker Sharon Hinks. But the smoke blew throughout the building, damaging units all the way up to the sixth floor.
The building’s insurance will cover the cost of the repairs, Falby tells the Journal, but many of the residents lost belongings—in some cases, everything—due to smoke damage. Mercifully, she says, a GoFundMe online fundraising campaign raised $57,000 for fire relief, about $30,000 of which will go toward replacing clothes, beds, furniture and more.
“No one in the building has contents insurance. When you don’t even have enough money at the end of the month to buy food—most people in the building are on ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program]—you certainly aren’t going to pay $10 a month for contents insurance,” she says.
And in the midst of a nation-wide crisis both in housing and in services for street-involved people, the fire has left some residents of the 11 units staying in shelters or temporary accommodation in apartments elsewhere while they wait for All Saints to repair the building. As of Jan. 11, it was expected to be six weeks, she says, before they’ll be able to move back in.
Falby says in a system strained to its limits, any loss of capacity can mean residents fall a rung on the ladder between housing and homelessness—only one rung, if they’re lucky. Some have found temporary apartments or spots in rooming houses, but even finding a spot in a shelter is considered lucky in the current housing climate.
“One [resident] told me yesterday he was living in a shelter and that it was worse than prison. So happily, they’re not [all] on the street, but they are temporarily homeless and they are suffering the effects,” she says, “There are all these attendant social determiners of health. People who live in shelters—their health is affected by the experience. It’s very destabilizing for people.”
When the Journal visited the building on Jan 12, the unit where the fire had broken out had been gutted down to the cinder blocks along with much of the third floor hallway, which was sealed off from the stairwell with plastic curtains over the doors to contain the still-lingering smell of smoke. As the cleanup efforts continued, there were still several spots showing smoke damage on the outside of the building.
Trish Sommerfield lives on the fourth floor. She describes the way the smoke left a black stain across her ceiling. “It looked just like a dungeon,” she says.
Sommerfield and her friend were among the dozens of residents who evacuated the building the night of the fire, taking a different staircase than usual when the hallway was blocked by clouds of smoke.
“You couldn’t even see the elevator,” she recalls.
Along with most other residents outside the third floor, Sommerfield is still staying in her unit, though she is one of many on the floors above the fire who will need to replace some of her belongings due to smoke damage. The floors below the fire sustained major water damage, too, due to the “lakes of water” from the firefighters’ hoses, says Falby.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation by Toronto Fire Services and the Toronto Police Service.
In the meantime, if readers want to support All Saints, Falby says, they should advocate for more supportive housing and more affordable housing in their own communities.
“There’s so much work to be done in terms of housing,” she says. “It really should be a basic human right.”
For Anglicans in particular, she says, “I’d ask them to keep not just us, but these residents in their prayers.”
All Saints Church-Community Centre accepts donations through Canada Helps at https://www.canadahelps.org/en/charities/all-saints-church-community-centre
This story has been updated from a previous version that incorrectly identified the visitor who died in the fire as a resident, stated that some of those displaced were living on the street, that Sommerfield left the building with her mother the night of the fire and that the smoke damage extended to the fifth floor