Military asks Ottawa to stop using Fort York Armoury as shelter
Special to The Globe and Mail, Toronto
The Canadian military, worried about where its cadets will march, has asked the federal government to rescind an agreement allowing Toronto's homeless to use Fort York Armoury as a shelter.
"You can't have 165 homeless people move in and have no impact...whatsoever," said Major Stéphane Grenier of Land Forces Central Headquarters.
The armoury's grievances have been sent to Ottawa. The commander of Ontario's military forces, Brigadier-General Walter Holmes, visited the downtown armoury in August.
"He had a look at what is happening and [sent] his concerns up to the army headquarters in Ottawa," Major Grenier said.
"Gen. Holmes asked Ottawa to rescind the decision to allow the City of Toronto to use the Fort York Armoury. That request was made in mid-August," Major Grenier said. "We would have preferred that by mid-September we would not have to deal with Fort York Armoury as a homeless shelter."
Defence (sic) Minister Art Eggleton responded by instructing Fort York "to carry on" until the middle of December despite the armoury's concerns, Major Grenier said.
Military personnel may not agree, but they have to abide by the minister's decision, he said.
"Strictly from a military point of view, we don't recognize this as an emergency situation. However, we have been directed to continue providing the shelter," he said.
Toronto plans to build a temporary winter shelter and expand the number of hostel beds for the winter to replace spaces that will be lost at Fort York in December. Pre-fabricated buildings, similar to those used for construction workers, and additional spaces in other shelters will provide 675 new spots for an expected influx of homeless people seeking shelter in the cold months, according to hostel-services director John Jagt.
"Right now, the numbers are terrible. We are turning away people in the men's facilities," said Peter Zimmerman, manager of the housing and homelessness initiative for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. "We have a number of new facilities coming on line, but when the armoury closes we're going to be riding right on the edge," Mr. Zimmerman said.
City Councillor Jack Layton, who has been pressing for more shelter space, said: "I find it totally ludicrous that they are going to close the armoury and push the homeless out 10 days before Christmas."
"I think it's important (sic) that our cadets get an opportunity to march up and down, but can't they do it outdoors?" he asked.
More than 600 reservists and 300 cadets lost their physical training space when half of the 2,800-square-metre armoury floor was converted into a hostel. Major Grenier says space is crucial to proper military training.
"Our indoor round-robin training, where members are tested on their skills, takes a lot of room. That is one thing that has been officially affected," he said.
Fort York Armoury also provided two classrooms normally used for theory instruction. "A lot of the explanation of how to actually mount an attack or put together a defensive position occurs in the classroom," Major Grenier said. Without the instruction space, cadet squadron leaders have been forced to modify and relocate some training.
"Before the shelter was established, cadet corps trained Monday nights at the indoor firing range to practice their marksmanship. Now they can't use that area," Captain Tony Foster said.
He estimated that anywhere from 200 to 400 cadets have moved to a nearby school and to HMCS York top carry out their weekly biathlon and weapons training.
Major Grenier also worries reservist numbers may drop because of the shelter.
"The whole issue of the homeless at Fort York Armoury may have an impact on our ability to recruit new CF [Canadian Forces] members and even potentially retain those who show up on a weekly basis," he said. "It's the human factor. How pleasant is it to share your working environment with a situation like this?"
Major Grenier stressed that it "is not that the military doesn't want to help, or are not compassionate. It's all in the spirit of trying to maintain a certain standard of in which we teach our soldiers basic soldiering skills."
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