Houses of Industry
Near the middle of the 19th century, the United Kingdom created a system of Victorian workhouses for the poor, and instituted laws that limited aid to anyone who refused to join. Charles Dickens famously described the harsh treatment endured by the poor in the “Houses of Industry” in his book, Oliver Twist.
In 1836, one of the British administrators of the system, Sir Frances Bond Head, was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Canada. Fearing that the inhumane conditions of the workhouses would spread to Canada, a group of reformers founded the Toronto House of Industry on the corner of Elm St. and Elizabeth St..
Built in 1848, The Toronto House of Industry was the city’s first homeless shelter, the first in a system of shelters that became the foundation for Canada’s government-funded social assistance programs.
In 1947, the building was converted into a home for the elderly, and remained so until Toronto’s Rotary Club took ownership in mid-1970s.
YWCA: Helping Women in Poverty
Across Canada, women are struggling with the debilitating effects of poverty. The statistics are astounding: 36% of Aboriginal women, 35% visible minority women, and 26% of women with disabilities, currently live below the poverty line. Twenty-one per cent of single parent mothers are raising their children in poverty. Reports have shown that children who are poor often suffer from chronic health problems and struggle in school, both factors that can perpetuate the cycle of economic hardship.
The lack of affordable childcare in Canada means that many women spend more time caring for their children and less time on education and career development. As part of juggling their daily responsibilities, these women are often forced to take on minimum wage and precarious jobs, ultimately sacrificing their long-term economic security. On average, a Canadian woman will earn about 65% of a Canadian man makes over her lifetime, making it harder to save for retirement. As a result, 14% of single senior women in Canada live in poverty.
To avoid these extraordinary obstacles, some women choose to stay in abusive relationships that put their lives, and the lives of their children, at risk.
The YWCA Toronto focuses on advocacy, employment and housing programs to help these vulnerable women and girls. By the middle of the last decade, the YWCA was running 196 shelter units and 234 permanent housing units, while helping thousands of women through group programs at centres across the city. But with over 30,000 women and their families still in need of affordable and supportive housing, the organization was determined to do more.
In 2006, the city bought the historic building and land surrounding the property from The Rotary Club, after a proposal for a condo development on the site had failed. The zoning had already been changed for high-density use, which prompted the city to accept proposals for a new, permanent affordable housing development.
YWCA Toronto teamed up with Wigwamen, an Aboriginal housing provider, and the Jean Tweed Centre, a women’s addiction counselling agency, to put forward an ambitious proposal for a large, permanent affordable housing complex and mixed-use community hub for women.
Affordable housing at this scale had not been built in Toronto since the federal government made cuts to social spending in 1980s and 1990s. The YWCA embarked on an elaborate social financing campaign to raise the funds for the project. They secured $37 million from the three levels governments, $26 million in loans from Infrastructure Ontario, $10 millions dollars in charitable donations, and $6 million dollars in social impact bonds – all as the global financial market was crashing.
A Safe Place
SvN, partnered with Hilditch Architect, was entrusted to design and deliver this unique, significant and exceptionally complex development.
The YWCA Elm Centre had to comprehensively address the needs of a very diverse community: low-income woman with mental health and addiction issues, women fleeing violence, women of aboriginal ancestry, and single mothers and their children. Our team had to deliver a range of affordable housing types to meet the programming requirements of three complimentary, but distinct, not-for-profits, and to create a series of safe, high quality and vibrant public spaces to help the community grow and thrive in years to come.