Opposing groups demonstrate on same city street to express views on midtown homeless shelters

Midtown homeless shelters were the focus of two Toronto rallies on Saturday, one by people in support of the temporary housing and the other by people opposed to the sites in their neighbourhood because of safety concerns.

Those upset about sites, those in support stage noisy rallies on Mount Pleasant Road

Local residents say they are not feeling safe in their own neighbourhood because of the shelter sites, while people living in the temporary housing say they are feeling discriminated against. Toronto police kept the peace while the two groups demonstrated across from each other on Saturday. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Midtown homeless shelters were the focus of two Toronto rallies on Saturday, one by people in support of the temporary housing and the other by people opposed to the sites in their neighbourhood because of safety concerns.

The two groups faced each other on Mount Pleasant Road, waving placards, chanting and shouting at each other.

In one week, a city employee was treated in hospital after being stabbed by a shelter client, a fire broke out, and a shelter client died of an overdose at the Broadway Avenue site. 

To house people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has leased three properties, the Roehampton hotel and two adjacent buildings on Broadway Avenue. The site at 55/65 Broadway Ave. is closing at the end of this month.

Nick Avramis, who lives in the neighbourhood, said local residents rallied in support of community safety.

"Over the last month, there has been over 30 break-ins in local businesses. There has been a proliferation of needles all over the schools. There's drug dealers in our neighbourhood. People have been assaulted. A city worker was stabbed. An individual was arrested with a handgun, people caught with knives. There is a criminal element in our community that has to go," Avramis said.

"This has always been a safe and peaceful community. We have had homeless people in the community. But what we are witnessing right now is not normal."

A man holds up a sign in support of the temporary shelter sites and calling for empathy for people experiencing homelessness. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Sean MacNutt, a demonstrator in support of the shelters, said empathy is needed and the counter-protest was organized to try to educate local residents about the need for homeless shelters, about addiction and mental health issues and about the problem of poverty.

"I think a primary concern with our group is to educate the people in this neighbourhood. They may have some concerns, which we don't want to be ignoring. However, we are in favour of people understanding the concerns of people who are experiencing issues with homelessness," Macnutt said.

"We feel that some of the local residents are taking a very dim view of what's happening where people are being sheltered in their neighbourhood. It is a COVID measure which was brought in, and I think we really have to understand that this is affecting everyone. And a lot of people who are affected by this issue don't have what people in this neighbourhood have."

"We need to consider the safety of all and it's important to think of how people got where they are. There are reasons why these issues exist. And we'd like to educate the public about that."

In one week, a city employee was treated in hospital after being stabbed by a shelter client, a fire broke out, and a shelter client died of an overdose at the Broadway Avenue site. Local residents say they are worried about the safety of children when schools open next month. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

In a statement released before the dual opposing rallies on Saturday, the city said: "The city has a responsibility to address and respond to safety concerns in any neighbourhood, while also supporting homeless individuals in our city with dignity and care."

Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement on Saturday that he visited the Mount Pleasant Road and Eglinton Avenue East areas on Wednesday for two hours to hear the concerns of local residents and business owners. He said he also talked to shelter residents and staff.

"We are substantially ramping up the degree of assistance that is on site, the degree of security, and the number of police patrols because we recognize that we have two important responsibilities, both of which I take very seriously: to keep neighbourhoods safe, stable and secure and to make sure we look after our most vulnerable populations," Tory said.

"I continue to raise residents' concerns with staff to make sure that the city is doing everything it can to respond and deliver results. I will not for one moment let up on my efforts as Mayor to both care for our most vulnerable populations and maintain safe, secure neighbourhoods. We will work together to achieve both."

Tory added that there are professionals, including doctors and nurses, at the Roehampton site to provide mental health assistance and addiction counselling to people who have suffered trauma and are in need of help.

City says steps being taken to increase safety

The city said local residents have shared their concerns with the city and it has taken steps to address community concerns. These steps include the following measures:

  • Installation of 33 security cameras.
  • Enhanced 24/7 mobile patrols.
  • Four security guards at the Roehampton site around the clock.
  • A community safety team of seven people between the Roehampton and Broadway Avenue sites who are picking up hazards, such as needles and monitoring and addressing inappropriate activity.
  • Work with Inner City Health Associates to provide clinical health supports, including registered nurses and a physician, a virtual addictions physician clinic and day-time on call support, plus psychiatric clinical support.
  • Meetings held regularly with the clients, which include reviewing the Good Neighbours Policy and their responsibilities as residents of the shelter.
  • Educational signs posted in the building regarding conduct in the neighbourhood.
  • Regular visits from Toronto police's community response unit.

Tensions have been high in the neighbourhood

Residents have said they fear for their safety, while those living in the buildings have said they are being discriminated against.

In this photo, the group in support of the midtown shelter sites marches down the street to face local residents concerned for their safety. (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

Melanie Ward, who lives in the neighbourhood, launched a Facebook group recently to discuss issues in the area. Thousands have flocked to the page to detail a litany of concerns, from excess needle waste to public defecation to assaults, break-ins and thefts.

They cite the location of the shelters — two apartment buildings and a nearby hotel — as problematic because they are near schools, daycares and other businesses.

Ward said that she feels scared walking alone at night.

"I moved here in 2005 because it was safe," she told The Canadian Press. "I'm a female by myself and don't want to be nervous walking around and looking over my shoulder."

Shelter resident says 'not all of us are bad'

Stephen Longfield, who lives in one of the repurposed apartment buildings on Broadway Avenue, said he understands that local residents are unhappy with the shelter sites. 

"They have their rights too. I understand. Three bad people make it bad for all of us. Not all of us are bad," Longfield told CBC Toronto. "They didn't have much crime until this moved in. I understand that. We all take the brunt of it, I guess."

Stephen Longfield, who lives in one of the repurposed buildings on Broadway Avenue, says: 'Not all of us are bad.' He said it was 'nice' that so many people came to the rally to show support for people experiencing homelessness. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Longfield said he thinks he might be safer himself living in a tent than being in the buildings. He was living in a tent near Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto downtown for three months before the city forced him to move.

"I've been on the housing list for almost six years now, but I haven't heard anything."

He added that it was "nice" that so many people came to the rally to show support for people experiencing homelessness. "I didn't think it would be this much, actually."

With files from Kelda Yuen, Talia Ricci, The Canadian Press