YWCA Elm Centre will stand tall for at-risk women

When Iman Namara fled Uganda for Canada to escape an abusive relationship in 2007, her first stop was a YWCA shelter in Toronto. She was immediately offered medical support, English language tutoring and soon moved into a residence that offered fitness, cooking and budgeting classes for vulnerable women.

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, the YWCA celebrated the launch of construction on their biggest affordable housing project yet, an $80 million complex called the YWCA Elm Centre. Supporters gathered at the Sick Kids Hospital, across the street from the building site at Elm and Elizabeth streets.

The three-structure complex, slated to open in 2011, will provide safe housing for 300 low-income, at-risk women such as Namara and will serve as the organization’s new national headquarters.

“This project will change the lives of generations of women and their families,” said Heather McGregor, CEO of the YWCA. Funding for the complex comes from a combination of public investment and generous private donations.

The YWCA has received a total of $38 million from the federal, provincial and municipal governments, including $12 million from the City of Toronto. They have also received about $10.5 million through donations and fundraising efforts are ongoing.

Toronto Mayor David Miller spoke in support of the project, praising its environmental features. The complex will include five green roofs, two rooftop gardens and one of the largest geothermal heating and cooling systems in North America.

Plans for the new centre also include a reception hall, a women’s resource room and a 200-seat auditorium, plus on-site support from the Jean Tweed Centre, providing counselling for women’s addictions.

The Jean Tweed Centre, along with Wigwamen Inc. and St. Michael’s Hospital, has partnered with the YWCA on the Elm Centre housing project.

“The Elm tree really has the meaning of strength of will and intuition, and the elm wood is valued for its interlocking grain and resistance to splitting and decay,” said Andrea Matheson, incoming chair of the Jean Tweed Centre.

“So isn’t it fitting that this YWCA Elm Centre will be standing tall, strong and environmentally sustainable in the centre of the concrete jungle of downtown Toronto?”

Olivia Chow, MP for the Trinity-Spadina riding, was also on hand to voice her support.

“For a teenager who has left a violent home or a middle-aged mother who is leaving an abusive relationship, the Elm Centre is going to be a lifeline, a place where they’ll be able to find peace on the rooftop garden, form relationships and learn to trust and heal, dream and hope.

“This is a dream come true and it’s so exciting,” Chow said.

As the celebration came to a close, Mayor Miller and other YWCA supporters took the stage to ceremoniously shovel scoops of green sand into cement for the project’s foundation.

The completed complex will fill a full city block behind City Hall, between Elm, Edward, Elizabeth and Chestnut streets.