'Like we're living in a nightmare': Midtown Toronto residents fed up with crime, vandalism near shelters
City-run shelters were opened in response to COVID-19 and the need to house vulnerable people
Despite a pledge by the city of Toronto to step up security measures in Midtown where three city-run homeless shelters have opened up, many residents and business owners say they're fed up with what they believe has been an increase in crime in the area.
In response to a need to house Toronto's homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic, the city leased three properties — the Roehampton hotel and two adjacent buildings on Broadway Ave.
Next month, the two shelter buildings on Broadway Ave. will be vacated, but the city has signed a two-year lease to keep the Roehampton hotel — something residents say they were never consulted about.
"This is first and foremost about saving lives and achieving physical distancing between people in shelters," said Gordon Tanner, Director of the City of Toronto's Homelessness Initiatives and Prevention Services.
But from graffiti, to public urination and defecation, to robberies, many residents say they've noticed things change since the shelters opened.
'The shelter cannot stay here'
"People are getting assaulted. You're being accosted... Businesses along Mount Pleasant have been broken into — some of them two or three times," said Luci Brown, a nearby resident.
"It just got progressively worse when the Roehampton hotel opened up."
In one week, a city employee was hospitalized after being stabbed by a shelter client, a fire broke out, and a shelter client died of an overdose at 55/65 Broadway Ave. Residents say the problems are now spilling out onto the street with crime, vandalism and break-ins.
On Tuesday, one shelter resident was charged with a weapons offence, alleged to have had a gun.
Toronto police Const. Caroline de Kloet acknowledged there have been reports of discarded needles in the area, but said it's "too early to determine" if there is a link between recent break-ins and the shelters opening.
Local businesses say they've noticed a change in the neighbourhood in recent months, too.
Jessica Burns and her family run The Homeway, a breakfast restaurant on Mt. Pleasant Road. She says the business was broken into recently, and all their electronics and a significant amount of alcohol were stolen.
"We've been here for 72 years. Never had a break in. Never been concerned about a break in. And this has just completely thrown us off guard," said Burns.
"It comes at a really bad time for us as well. Like all businesses who are struggling to stay afloat during [COVID-19], it's the last thing we need."
'I think they feel we don't belong here'
Jen Reece, who lives in one of the repurposed apartment buildings on Broadway Avenue, said she feels hurt by the backlash.
"The vast majority of us are good people, but apparently we are offensive that we even exist," she said. "Oh no, somebody has to see somebody being poor for a minute."
Reece, who said she's been "living rough" for a year and a half, said the apartment has given her a "sense of self," but she's disappointed by the community's reaction.
"I think they feel we don't belong here, we belong downtown with all the soup kitchens... I can't believe there will be protests — protesting humans, it's hard to believe."
Meanwhile Brown, who says her daughter goes to a daycare next to the Roehampton hotel, doesn't feel safe picking her up.
"The daycare had fecal matter human defecation next to the fence where the kids play. There's been needles surrounding the area " said Brown.
"I feel like we're living in a nightmare."
"The community has really been terrorized, to put it simply, with what's transpired here over the last month," said long-time area resident Nick Avramis, who said his family's home backs onto a daycare that was recently robbed.
"The sentiment right now is as it is now: the shelter cannot stay there."
"We understand there was a crisis — that we had to get our vulnerable people off the street. But a lot of people are questioning how the decision process came to be," said Avramis.
The City of Toronto acknowledges it moved faster than usual with the opening of shelters but said it urgently needed to move people out of crowded shelters and encampments for their own safety.
"Given the pandemic and that time was of the essence, and this was about saving lives and protecting people, we moved very quickly to open up 30 locations throughout the city. And we did that without that normal comprehensive community engagement approach," said Tanner.
Back to school worries
With the start of school just weeks away, two Toronto District School Board trustees say they have serious concerns about the safety of students and staff, given there are four public schools within a one-kilometre radius of the shelter.
"The location of the Roehampton shelter is within 20 metres of schools on either side roughly," said Rachel Chernos Lin, TDSB trustee Ward 11 Don Valley West.
"We wouldn't be allowed to put a pot shop in that location."
Shelley Laskin, Trustee Ward 8 Eglinton-Lawrence and Toronto-St. Paul's, said she's received reports from principals at nearby schools of dozens of needles and inappropriate behaviour of people on school grounds.
"Frankly, I would even go so far as to say I want city staff at every school during morning time, during recess, during noon, during after school to make sure that it's not our staff that have to approach people."
While both trustees say they understand the need to house vulnerable people and welcome the city's openness to step up safety protocols in the area, they say they don't understand why the school board wasn't consulted before the city signed two-year lease for the hotel to be a shelter.
"It's our responsibility as trustees to provide a safe and secure environment. And so it's important that the city consult us on matters that will have a profound effect on schools," said Chernos Lin.
'A small number of people who are responsible'
Tanner said the city has added security teams to the shelters including a corporate mobile patrol that operates 24/7. He said they're also working closely with Toronto 53 Division. The goal, he said, is to make sure the programs are run in a professional and safe way for clients, staff and for the broader community.
"I would say the influence and the impact [of COVID-19] on people experiencing homelessness and who live in poverty has been quite severe, and and it is ongoing. So we're doing the best we can to support some of the most vulnerable people in the city," said Tanner.
Area councillor Josh Matlow was not available for comment, but in a post in his newsletter he said the community understands the need to provide shelter for vulnerable people. But he said the behaviour affecting neighbourhood is "unacceptable."
"Concerns raised about the recent behavioural impacts on Midtown residents' safety from the new shelters at the Roehampton Hotel and 55-65 Broadway are real and should not simply be dismissed as 'NIMBY'," the statement reads.
Meanwhile, some residents say they believe a solution lies in holding law-breakers accountable but also having better dialogue with the rest of the shelter clients.
"I still think that it's a small number of people who are responsible for this uptick in crimes," said resident Amber Toutant, who has lived in the area for 14 years.
"I think that if we work together as a community, we have an opportunity to make them feel included."
Mary-Anne Bedard, Toronto's general manager of shelter, support and housing administration, said she understands the concerns of people in the Midtown area.
"This is a neighbourhood that previously hasn't had a shelter, so they're not necessarily used to seeing these types of people," she said. "It is a fact of daily life for many people right across the city -- it is a fact that community needs to come to terms with."
Bedard said the city does not need a neighbourhood's permission to place a shelter there. But with that process reversed due to the pandemic, Bedard is asking for compassion from the neighbourhood.
Lorraine Lam, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries Toronto, a downtown drop-in centre, said the city should have consulted with the neighbourhood earlier, but believes the community will come around through engagement and education.
"I think a lot of it might come from fear and not knowing the other side," she said.
"There needs to be conversations to help the neighbourhood understand."
The city is holding an online community town hall on Wednesday, August 19 to discuss the Roehampton hotel.
- A previous version of this story did not include quotes from any shelter residents. It has since been updated to include that perspective.Aug 13, 2020 5:51 PM ET
With files from The Canadian Press