Evangel Hall is overflowing with people trying to manage as best they can. The Presbyterian-run outreach centre, tucked between storefronts on the south side of Queen near Portland, is perennially at the mercy of its cramped, awkwardly configured, 83-year-old premises.

At mealtimes, the centre’s main-floor hub quickly fills to capacity, so homeless clients line up outside while volunteers ferry food up and down the stairs. A cubicle in the front window is intended for addiction, employment and housing counselling, but it provides barely any privacy. Income from a basement thrift store with concrete floors and exposed plumbing helps support the centre’s operations, but shoppers can’t get to the store from the street.

Amid architectural drawings and stacks of paper in his third-floor office, Evangel Hall’s executive director, David Smith, explains why Toronto’s Presbyterian congregations have spent the past two years trying to build a new home for the centre.

They’ve planned a new building that would occupy what is now a junkyard on the north side of Adelaide near Bathurst, beside the Factory Theatre. In addition to doubling the amount of space available for outreach projects, the new facility would address concerns about safety, inefficient layout and wheelchair accessibility. But it would also create 84 new affordable apartments, to be filled by those who are homeless or in danger of becoming so.

Smith’s centre is luckier than many overwhelmed outreach facilities in at least one way: Evangel Hall was earmarked in fall 2001 to receive a chunk of federal cash, the holy grail for frantic housing organizations. In fact, Smith has commitments of public and private money for $11.5 million out of the $11.8 million the project requires.

But now, a year later, the city’s administration process for the money has proved so long and unwieldy that Smith is nervous the whole project is about to unravel. He’s afraid that paperwork delays in the city’s legal department mean the centre won’t have a down payment in time to buy their designated land from a very patient seller, who is under financial pressure and can’t wait any longer.

“I think the people in the legal department are just overwhelmed … but we’re running out of time,” says Smith. “We have a conditional offer on a property with a very generous vendor who’s given us extensions totaling 14 months. Now we have one last extension. We have 60 days to go. If we don’t get these agreements, and the time to look them over by Dec. 15, then this project will be cancelled.”

Since the centre’s private funding commitments are contingent on the public money tied up in the city’s legal department — $2.9 million in federal money, which the city administers, and a $1.95 million “forgivable” city loan — Smith has sounded the alarm in the Presbyterian community, soliciting donations and bridge financing so a down payment will be available in time.

Mark Guslits, the city’s special advisor for housing development, says Smith’s concerns are unfounded. “I can see where David would be excited. He’s in charge of a largely volunteer organization that is trying to make something happen that is virtually impossible: to build affordable housing,” says Guslits. “But it’s hard to understand that he’s talking about the project being cancelled. The process is well in hand and will be completed in time.”

Moreover, city staff say Smith’s project is by no means the biggest or most complex of the 21 projects in the city they’re trying to funnel federal housing money toward.

The Supporting Communities Partnership Initiative (SCPI) — called “skippy” — is the $305-million national program announced in 1999 by the federal human resources department to fund projects to reduce and prevent homelessness. Cities must spend the money locally themselves. Over the three years of the project’s initial phase (2000-2003), Toronto will have received $53 million in SCPI funds. (The federal government recently announced another round of SCPI money, just days after Tent City residents were evicted.)

Community organizations applying for some of that money had to go through an approval process involving city staff, council committees, city council and the city’s legal department.

Smith’s project has already overcome most of the other obstacles usually encountered by non-profit housing organizations: besides the $11.5 million in donations and loan commitments, zoning variations and finalized architectural plans have been approved by the city. In April, the Ontario Municipal Board gave its approval to the project after the lone citizen objection to the project was withdrawn. The provincial government has also promised to provide operating money in the form of rent supplements for 15 years.

Now, with the real-estate deadline only weeks away, a total of $4.85 million in capital funding for the project is waiting on legal documents being prepared by the city solicitor’s office.

Smith says he’s been told by the city for months that the documents necessary to release the funding would be coming soon. “We went to a seminar [in July] in which we were shown a legal document that was a quarter-inch thick … We were told, ‘This is the form of the legal agreements you will be signing. We will be getting these to you shortly.'”

Guslits says that there haven’t been undue delays in the legal department. He says it wasn’t until September that Evangel Hall completed its due diligence work and received the necessary approvals from city council. “I don’t know that anything need be done in the legal department other than what is being done,” he says. “If we felt that there was a reason to be nervous, we’d certainly let David know.”

Councillor Olivia Chow (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina), chair of council’s community services committee, which oversees distribution of SCPI money, expressed surprise at Smith’s concern.

“I understand the importance of legal documents, and I understand that we don’t want undue delays. That’s why we’ve appointed a full-time lawyer to work on these housing projects.” The full-time lawyer, she says, just started the week of Oct. 14. “We’re not in December yet, we’re not in November yet. I think what we need is trust.”

Despite his frustration, Smith says he is hesitant to point fingers. But he wonders whether there isn’t a larger problem afoot. “I believe that Olivia Chow is doing her best, that Mark Guslits is doing his best … I know we’re doing our best,” he says. “So if we’re all doing our best, where’s the problem? Maybe [everyone’s best is] just not enough to build housing for poor people in this city.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on October 24, 2002.