Toronto councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, left, YWCA of Greater Toronto president and CEO Heather McGregor and councillor Ana Bailao participate in the opening ceremony of the Elm Centre on Tuesday. (May 22, 2012)

Toronto councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, left, YWCA of Greater Toronto president and CEO Heather McGregor and councillor Ana Bailao participate in the opening ceremony of the Elm Centre on Tuesday. (May 22, 2012)

More than a year after its expected completion date, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Tuesday, May 22 to celebrate the official opening of the YWCA of Greater Toronto's Elm Centre.

Located on Elm Street in downtown Toronto, the 300-unit affordable housing complex provides homes to low-income women and women-led families, women with mental health and/or addiction issues, women of Aboriginal ancestry and other women in need.

Annalee Hopkins, who bounced from foster home to foster home as a child before living on the street, finally has a home to call her own at Elm Centre.

"I have dreams and goals again and I'm confident that I will see them through," she said. "I'm trying new things that help me develop social skills and make me feel better about myself."

With the supports and the friendships woven into the Elm Centre's fabric, she said she finally feels optimistic about her life.

"What is hope?" she asked. "To me, it means the YWCA Elm Centre."

With a courtyard, meeting rooms, a 180-seat auditorium and - later this year - a restaurant, the Elm Centre will serve as more than a housing complex for those in need. The largest affordable housing complex in Canada in more than a decade will also be a community hub.

YWCA of Greater Toronto CEO Heather McGregor noted the centre hit its share of speed bumps from the time it was conceived until it was completed.

"We did have one weekend where we had no mortgage funding but we had signed with a contractor," she said. "That was a very, very bad weekend."

Despite those problems and the doubts of others who said the organization would never bring in the necessary funding and lacked the expertise to build such a large-scale project, those working to bring the Elm Centre to fruition remained undeterred in their vision.

Given the challenges faced by many women looking to escape domestic violence and those dealing with mental health issues, McGregor said it was imperative the project go ahead.

"You can see we did succeed," she said. "We had no choice but to succeed."

Elm Centre tenant Mary Lou VandenBroek said the centre has made a difference in her life, giving her much-needed support after she developed mental and physical health issues. Her problems were exacerbated when she became isolated and did not know where to turn.

"It's a terrible feeling to be bounced around the system never finding the necessary support," she said, adding that thanks to the Elm Centre, "I remember what it is to be human, to be with other people and to be able to share with other people."

Fellow tenant Janet Menezes agreed the centre has gone above and beyond what she expected when she was living in an abusive marriage.

"When I wake up and I see that I have this five-star apartment (and) everything's working and beautiful and clean, I am truly grateful," she said.

Representatives from all three levels of government were on hand at the opening festivities to celebrate the opening. The Elm Centre received funding from the federal, provincial and municipal governments, who ensured the housing project came to be.

"This was a blank area before," said Kellie Leitch, attending on behalf of federal minister responsible for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation Diane Finley. "Now it's an area where women and children can come and know it's a safe haven as their new home."

Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Kathleen Wynne pointed out people with stable housing live healthier lives on the whole, lending credence to the concept that housing should be given more priority.

"Housing sometimes doesn't make it into the infrastructure basket, but it is (infrastructure,)" she said. "I think as a society we have to think about it as infrastructure more than we do because when we think about it as infrastructure, dollars flow."

Councillor Ana Bailao concurred, saying that "positive health, education and job outcomes come when someone has access to safe, affordable housing."