The first night that Nicola Simpson spent in an emergency shelter she was in a state of complete and utter disbelief, alone and facing a new life in Canada.

“I was numb. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was upset, I was filled with anger,” said Simpson, now 38, who spent the better part of 2011 at a facility in North York for women who have experienced or are fleeing violence.

Those feelings, she says, didn’t last for long because of how she was welcomed and treated by staff at the 30-bed facility.

“They don’t spoon-feed you . . . they push you. They are going to make sure you don’t fall into the gutter, or feel like a victim,” said Simpson, an aspiring lawyer, who now has housing and a string of academic degrees.

“When you are at such a dark place in your life, when you have lost everything, being a part of something is very important.”

The North York Women’s Shelter was shut down in May, resulting in the layoff of close to 30 full and part-time staff and clients being relocated to other shelters across the province.

The plan is to raze and replace it with a fully accessible structure, still with 30 beds but eight times the size and designed to offer services that weren’t previously available, including on-site medical care. The new shelter is expected to be completed in spring 2019.

Former staff told the Star the shutdown was unnecessarily abrupt and they are seriously concerned about what they see as a gap in services in the region, as well as the relocation of vulnerable women in an already crowded system.

Executive director Mohini Datta-Ray said the shutdown was part of an expedited process tied to a rare and badly needed funding opportunity, but the full closure, layoffs, and relocation were not done without first exploring if other options were possible. There wasn’t time or the funding needed to find and secure a temporary space and make it safe, she said.

After 33 years in operation, and serving more than 11,000 women on a 24-hour rotation, they jumped at the chance to get $8.8 million for a rebuild. Datta-Ray acknowledged they had to make fast and tough choices, but ones they feel are best for the women they serve.

“We were cramped, tired and it wasn’t a safe space anymore for women and staff,” said Datta-Ray. “At a certain point the building starts to crumble,”

It won’t mean a loss of services, she said, because the physical shelter didn’t offer direct services, just beds. The layoffs included two management positions and more than half their funding left with the women who moved out, which in the final weeks was six or seven, she said.

“The funding goes with the beds,” said Datta-Ray. The facilities where the women went “didn’t have the capacity to make a new position because of one or two beds coming online.”

The laid-off staff, 13 full-time and 16 part-time or relief workers, were given employment counselling and an extension of their union recall rights, so if construction goes longer than expected they are still entitled to those jobs, she said.

Datta-Ray said she hopes that ultimately some of the staff who served the women at the old shelter will come back.

“Some of them have more than a decade of experience, working at North York in particular, but the shelter system in general and we are hoping their vision will really inform what we are building.”

A spokesperson with the Ministry of Community and Social Services said the money was part of a broader financial commitment to improve services for violence against women (VAW) shelters. In 2015 and 2016, more than 95 facilities served 10,770 women and 6,920 children and were operating at 83 per cent capacity.

“The beds in operation at North York Women’s Shelter have been absorbed by their partners and all women who were receiving service from (the shelter) are continuing to receive service without disruption,” said Takiyah Tannis, in an email.

Former staff do not agree.

“How can they say there are no disruption in services when we are missing for two years?” asked Amy Clements, who worked there for 14 years.

The Star met with Clements and four former staff members. They described a deeply loving and supportive community environment, where chaos and compassion intertwined and staff and clients worked together to help women and children heal and get on with their lives.

In that building, on top of making sure everybody was fed, bedded, safe and secure, they helped connect women with legal support, crisis counselling and all manner of applications, including and especially housing.

Former clients, they said, are reaching out in confusion and still seeking their help with ongoing issues, largely because of the trust they built up in that community. Kids who used the shelter, they say, also had to switch schools with just weeks left in the term.

“There is no reason why we couldn’t have reached out to community partners and organized office space. There are so many different ways to have done it,” said Clements.

Former client Simpson is still in touch with staff and said she couldn’t list everything they did for her, because so much was above a basic job description.

Simpson also wonders why an office couldn’t have been set up to help clients struggling with the change. “It is not the same as a shelter, but at least the gap can be filled and the need is there.”

Simpson was born in Jamaica, where, as a lesbian she faced homophobic violence. “Even though it was difficult for me to stay in the closet, it was about survival,” she said.

She chose Canada as a safe haven, moving here in 2010. Things did not go as planned and she ended up in the shelter, on a visitor’s visa and with few future prospects, but staff didn’t let her stay down for long.

She became a licensed paralegal and has an undergraduate degree in legal studies from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and hopes one day to practise human rights and disabilities law.

Her first try to get into law school was unsuccessful, so this fall she begins a Master of Arts in Criminology and Social Justice at Ryerson University.

Her backup plan is to train as a forensic psychologist, so she can work with people who have experienced domestic violence and give back some of what she was offered in North York.

“I don’t know how I would have survived, if I had not been in that shelter.”

Update: After publication of the article, Mohini Datta-Ray told the Star that a full-time, women’s counsellor continues to work out of their administrative office, which is located a short distance from the original shelter. That counsellor runs their Expressive Arts Therapy Program and serves as a point of contact for former residents and is a part of their continued presence in the community, she said.