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Once known as “Skid Row,” the area surrounding Dundas St. E. and Sherbourne Ave. has long been a locale where the poor found shelter and support in flop houses and hostels, accessing soup kitchens, drop-in centres and other social services.
Since the 1970s, however, the emergence of major condo developments in Toronto’s central districts and the gentrification of the old “Skid Row” and its adjacent housing stock, has slowly eroded the fragile social infrastructure supporting the poor. Boarding houses are largely gone. Canada’s largest men’s hostel, Seaton House, on George St. is slated for closure, marking an end to a long tradition of Toronto’s dispossessed finding some respite in the Downtown East.
The extent to which the jobless and down-and-out have fought throughout Toronto’s history to secure better conditions and small entitlements for themselves is little appreciated. One important chapter in this ongoing struggle is the effort to improve conditions in the hostels during the tumultuous years of protests by the unemployed in the 1930s.
By December 1930, more than a year after the Great Depression’s economic crash of late 1929, city officials were scrambling to shelter and feed thousands of poor, out-of-work, people in Toronto. More than 35,000 registered with the city’s Unemployment Bureau by mid-decade, fully 16,500 of them young, often transient, unmarried men.
J. Allan Ross, a wealthy Toronto philanthropist, helped to found a hostel in an old warehouse at 21 Wellington St. E. Offering shelter to more than 600 single men nightly, Wellington House soon became a vital institution in Toronto’s Welfare Department services.
In the late winter of 1935 this mobilization peaked. On Friday March 8, 900 hostel residents from Wellington House, Seaton House, and the House of Industry gathered inside the Labor Temple the Church Street hall used for labour-related and trade union meetings. Shelter life was described as “brutal” and “inhumane.” Wellington House was condemned as “a fire trap.” Unsanitary, overcrowded, and disease-ridden, Toronto’s hostels were anything but idyllic retreats for the poor.
Indeed, evidence suggests that authorities wanted conditions within the shelter system to be unwelcoming. When confronted with protests, Toronto Welfare Commissioner Albert Laver explained to the disgruntled hostel residents that he did not “want to make it too comfortable for them.” Coddling the poor, in Laver’s view, would only encourage more of the downtrodden to make their way to Toronto’s hostels, and stay in them longer.
Laver’s counterpart at Queen’s Park was Liberal Premier Mitchell Hepburn. Elected in part because he seemed originally to want to improve the lot of the jobless, Hepburn quickly shifted his thinking, and in 1935 believed that, “any single boy with initiative and backbone can get a job.” Toronto’s unemployed knew differently. More than 1,000 of them were not amused when, on Aug. 1, 1935, they were evicted from the city’s shelters, pushed into the streets to find employment that was simply not available.
Indicative of what might happen to the poor who expressed discontent was the case of Clifford Mashery, a resident of Wellington House. Mashery was involved in a late 1933 mobilization of Wellington House residents fed up with the hostel’s food. Tainted meat had resulted in more than 120 men suffering acute stomach pains, and some of the afflicted became seriously ill. Ascending a platform in the Wellington House dining hall, Mashery addressed a crowd of 200. Convinced that Mashery was inciting a riot, shelter Superintendent Harry Baker confronted the agitator, ordering him to step down and leave the hostel. Now homeless, Mashery was charged with vagrancy. Found guilty, he was sentenced to a year’s probation and banned from seeking relief at city shelters.
In February of 1937, Alderman Smith presented a protest petition to Toronto City Council signed by 500 residents of three city shelters, outlining a wide array of grievances. A month later, a Relief Reform Association formed, meeting regularly at the Metropolitan Church. Affiliates of the association included the Communist-led Ontario Federation of Unemployed, church groups, trade unions, and social workers. A key demand was the replacement of the hostel system with $ 5 cash relief per week for single unemployed men, to be used to secure sustenance and lodging. Welfare Commissioner Laver scotched the idea.
Late in 1938, single unemployed men residing in Toronto’s shelters organized against a forced “labour test.” On Oct. 28, Mayor Day had introduced new requirements for single unemployed men using the hostels. Plans were made to have these jobless men work at levelling and grading land on the bay front. The men were expected to work seven hours in return for a week’s lodging and food at Wellington House and other institutions for the homeless. Thought of paying the out-of-work for their labour on the relief project was judged beyond consideration.
The jobless fought back. On Nov. 2, 300 gathered to mobilize against the mandatory “work test,” passing motions that they took to city officials. Twelve men were appointed to organize among the residents of Wellington House, Seaton House, and the House of Industry. “Our proposal is work with pay or no work,” N.P. Walton, chair of the Unemployed Association warned the members of the Board of Control: “We will not work on this scheme unless we are provided with wages. We do not want to remain in these hostels that are not fit for human beings.”
Despite the strong opposition to this 1930s workfare scheme, the City of Toronto went ahead with the work test. However, although the unemployed had been promised food and shelter in return for completing their mandatory unpaid labour, some who undertook their seven hours work were actually turned away from city hostels, which were filled to capacity.
When the Star reported that Jack Parsons had been refused entry to the House of Industry after having completed the labour requirement, George Stagg, a staff member at the welfare office on Church St., confirmed that the story was quite true. “We are at wit’s end,” Stagg told the Star. “Things are very bad. We turned about a dozen away on Tuesday night.”
Soon after the Second World War broke out in the fall of 1939, Toronto’s shelters began to empty as the unemployed men were shipped off to fight in Europe. Wellington House was shut down a few years later, never to open again.
Since then, overcrowded living conditions in city hostels continue to worsen. Yet the city moves forward with its plans to close Seaton House, one of its oldest shelters.
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