COVID-19 and gun violence creating a two-front battle for Jane and Finch residents

Jane and Finch residents challenged Mayor John Tory to provide more supports to the community, as the neighbourhood is dealing with gun violence and COVID-19 at the same time.

Residents confront Tory, calling for more support after a Saturday shooting struck 12-year-old boy

Reverend Sky Starr, a therapist that counsels mothers who have lost children to gun violence, says that Jane and Finch residents are dealing with both COVID-19 and gun violence at once. (Paul Borkwood)

Days after a 12-year-old and three other teens were shot in Toronto's Jane and Finch neighbourhood, community leaders are challenging the municipality to prioritize tackling gun violence and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They say both elements are impacting residents, and specifically youth, disproportionately in the neighbourhood compared to the rest of the city. 

Mayor John Tory and others including Interim Police Chief James Ramer went to the area on Sunday to speak to community members about violence following the Saturday shooting that left a 12-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy fighting for their lives in hospital.

Some of the interactions were tense, as residents expressed their anguish and frustration with the local government.

A small crowd formed around Tory in the parking lot where bullets had struck the young boy yesterday, including one mother who lost a child to gun violence. She directly challenged Tory in front of a crowd of onlookers, urging him to do more for the neighbourhood.

Mayor John Tory, right, in the red mask, speaks to Jane and Finch residents at the location where a 12-year-old boy was shot on Saturday. (CBC)

The community is always dealing with constant fear, and anxiety around violence that has now become worse due to COVID-19, said Reverend Sky Starr, a minister, therapist and community advocate in Jane and Finch. 

"You don't know what's going to happen next, because this is happening in the midst of COVID, on top of COVID, where people are feeling isolated and lonely and depressed and suicidal," she said. 

Starr equates residents dealing with the COVID-19 public health crisis and gun violence as a battle on two fronts.

Long-established health disparities that disproportionately impact lower income people of colour in Toronto have metastasized due to the pandemic, she said. 

She said she's seen officials come many times to speak to community members, but has not seen substantial change come from those meetings. 

"We're stuck in this reactionary phase of things. Every time there's a shooting, everybody shows up, people talk...the long-term process is still the same. There's no change," she said.

"To this day, we don't have consistent funding to help us. I get frustrated and upset...especially when it's a kid, a 12-year-old," she said. 

Jane and Finch critically underfunded in the past: report

For decades the Jane and Finch community has been historically underfunded, left without "tangible, long-term improvement goals" and "any kind of cultural strategy or funding" in the area, according to a 2015 report published by researchers from community organizations and academics at York University.

Police say a 12-year-old is in life-threatening condition and a 17-year-old has been critically injured in a North York shooting that injured four youth in total. (Kelda Yuen/CBC News)

The report said that issues like lack of affordable housing, unemployment, failing infrastructure and police violence contribute to communities being pushed to the outskirts. Crime and violence are often symptoms of these issues as individuals struggle to access basic supports that are more easily available in wealthier parts of the city. 

Those layers of community neglect have not only fuelled violence but have made the COVID-19 crisis worse in neighbourhoods like Jane and Finch — where families are left with dense, high-rise housing due to what's affordable, community advocates told CBC News in the summer

Residents are also often frontline workers and have no choice but to take crowded transit, they said. For instance, the TTC said last month that it's not possible to practice social distancing on some of its bus routes. 

And it's the youth who are left behind while these crises are colliding, said Starr.

"Right now, we're hearing just anxiety and fear," she said. Starr counsels mothers who have lost children to gun violence and works with youth. 

She's extended her hours because youth are calling late into the night as they are feeling vulnerable, depressed and lonely due to the pandemic. That along with recent shootings, has added more fear and stress to their lives, she said. 

'We need to do more,' says Tory

Tory said on Twitter that he, Ramer and other officials went to the Jane and Finch neighbourhood to listen to community leaders on gun violence following Saturday's shooting. They were also joined by City Councillor Anthony Perruzza and NDP MPP Tom Rakocevic, who both represent that region.

"Sometimes when you come to listen, you hear things that are not easy to hear," Tory said at a news conference held in the neighbourhood. "But that's why we're here, to listen and to see if we can find a better way to deal with these problems."

Tory mentioned his government has spent millions this year in the Jane and Finch area of the city along with others to address gun violence. 

Earlier this year, Tory pledged $6 million in funding toward anti-violence programming specifically targeted at youth. The move received praise as well as criticism with some saying that it did not go far enough. 

The mayor's visit to Jane and Finch comes as a new report published last week found that community organizations in harder hit neighbourhoods in the northwest part of the city need more support to help residents with COVID-19. That's something leaders have been expressing for months

Glenfield-Jane Heights, the neighbourhood designation that encompasses much of the Jane and Finch area, has a COVID-19 positivity rate of 11 per cent, the report found. Eight neighbourhoods that are above the 10 per cent threshold for tightening restrictions to the red level, are all around a similar region. 

People of colour living in those areas continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic in the city, as Toronto Public Health said Friday that 79 per cent of those infected with COVID-19 identified with a racialized group and 24 per cent are among Black people, who remain over-represented in COVID-19 cases.

Last month, Tory announced $1.9 million toward community services that support residents with COVID-19 in harder-hit neighbourhoods. That was in addition to earlier funding announced in June, a total of $4.97 million, for community-based agencies.

But community organizations have expressed that they still lack resources to tackle fundamental issues with the pandemic, including language barriers when it comes to health information. 

Tory said he'd take what he heard Sunday to his colleagues at the provincial and federal levels of government, and that he plans to be back in the area in the next few weeks to create a more formal roundtable. 

"The message I got today was we need to do more," said Tory. "This problem is unacceptable. It is heartbreaking. It is unfair to the people who live in these areas, as are many things that are unfair."

City needs to develop localized plan: programming director

COVID-19 has exposed and worsened what residents in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood had been dealing with for many years, and at its core are inequities and poverty, said Pablo Vivanco, director of programs and community development at the Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre.

People in the neighbourhood do not have the privilege to limit their exposure — like choosing to work from home, he said. 

"They're still having to go out because that's just the thing that they need to do in order to put food on their family's table," he said. 

Tension and anxiety has risen in the neighbourhood and youth lack proper mental health supports, or face stigma if dealing with mental health issues, and don't always have resources to access, he said. 

That makes coping with the pandemic and violence in the area, even more difficult, said Vivanco.

Pablo Vivanco, director of programs and community development at the Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre, says he's looking for the city to implement a localized strategy to address violence and COVID-19 in the neighbourhood. (CBC)

The Jane and Finch Community and Family Centre works with youth to address violence and provide them mental health supports. 

But those are not long-term solutions for issues like the lack of opportunities or stable jobs for youth that actually have proper pay, he said. 

That's why he was pleased to see multiple leaders including Tory in the neighbourhood Saturday, and he said he has seen more funding for organizations like his, more so now than in the last few years. 

Vivanco hopes now there can be further development of a localized plan for the area that can have multiple layers to tackle both the pandemic and gun violence.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

With files from Farrah Merali and Shanifa Nasser