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Unique partnership builds a home – and future – for Markham’s homeless and marginalized

September 8, 2020

August 31, 2020 by Kim Zarzour

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It was a house that needed a lot of love.

Now it’s a home that’s ready to be lived in.

Aug. 27 was the grand opening of the once-vacant and derelict four-bedroom home on Elgin Mills Road East in Markham.

The house represents a pioneering new approach toward solving homelessness launched by the not-for-profit agency based in East Gwillimbury.

Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite hopes there will be more transformations to follow.

“Right now, with COVID-19 and people needing to shelter in place, it’s that much more critical to find affordable housing beyond just emergency shelters,” Braithwaite said.

This house was one of about 44 vacant buildings that Parks Canada inherited when land was transferred to create the Rouge Valley Park, Braithwaite said.

He approached the federal agency last fall, hoping one of those properties could be converted into affordable housing. 

Rouge Park is the largest in Canada, the first of its kind – a national park in an urban context – and this presented unique opportunities, said Parks Canada spokesperson Jeffrey Sinibaldi.

“We were able to team up with organizations that aren’t in the rural settings where Parks Canada places are typically located,” Sinibaldi said.

“Michael pitched us a great opportunity and we thought, ‘Let’s give it a shot and see what we can do with working collaboratively.'”

With funding from the national housing strategy and $100,000 from the P. and L. Odette Foundation, the home got a fix-up and a facelift this spring.

Home Depot provided appliances and some of the construction materials, and Parks Canada agreed to provide 20 years of rent-free occupancy.

Work was done through the social enterprise Building Up, a Toronto-based non-profit construction contractor that uses renovation projects – often affordable housing – to train and launch careers for people who face barriers in the workplace.

Executive director Marc Soberano said up to 20 people – who may have been refugees to the country, coming from low-income neighbourhoods or reintegrating after time in the criminal justice system – worked on the project while learning a trade.

Over the past six years, Building Up has trained more than 300 people, he said, and 80 per cent have gone on to full-time careers in the trades.

A training centre in Etobicoke provides in-class programs and social worker support, paid for through government and foundations.

In 2016, Building Up helped transform a 360Kids transition house for at-risk youth at 17 Mill St. in Markham.

Because the Elgin Mills home was a large project, requiring new flooring, a new kitchen and repainting, the crew was exposed to many different types of construction work, he said.

“It let them learn where in this world of the trades they want to focus the rest of their careers, what they are good at, what they like doing.

“A lot of the people we train struggle with self-esteem and feeling valued, and for them to be able to build something that will be used for affordable housing helps them give back to their communities and feel they are contributing to something that is important to them.”

Braithwaite said the search has begun for a family to move into the house in September.

The Abode program at Blue Door will provide ongoing support, with a staff member to help them settle in and provide any life skills assistance they need. 

Abode will also provide snow removal and lawn cutting on the property through a program offering work experience for those who need it.

“This house is otherwise sitting vacant and now not only is it providing housing, but it’s a way for people to launch their careers in construction,” Soberano said. “It’s a really effective use of funding to support so many interrelated issues.”

“This is a great win-win,” Braithwaite adds. “This building now has shape, it has purpose … but also with the Building Up apprenticeships, we’re pulling people out of poverty.”