COVID-19 closures fuel gun violence, youth advocates warn as shootings rise in Toronto

Those who thought COVID-19 would lead to a drop in gun violence in Toronto this year have been mistaken, as the number of shootings is up over this time in 2019. And some advocates say the closure of community programs due to the pandemic is actually making the problem worse.

Community workers say they're 'losing kids' who are at risk due to pandemic restrictions

Toronto shootings are keeping pace with last summer's numbers. Advocates are saying that COVID-19 restrictions are making it harder to do their work, meaning they could 'lose kids' who are at risk. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

The number of shootings in Toronto is up over this time last year and advocates for communities at risk say the closure of safe spaces, programs and services due to the pandemic is partly to blame. 

There have been 245 shootings so far this year, according to Toronto Police statistics, killing 24 people. That's more than the total by July 2019 when there were 216 shootings and 18 people killed. 

There were four shootings in Toronto this past weekend alone, something that Louis March, the founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement, says isn't unexpected — given that people in at-risk neighbourhoods don't have the services and places to go they usually have. That's due to COVID-19 restrictions closing community centres and shuttering anti-violence programs.

"When you take away the safe spaces from them they start doing things differently. So this weekend is not a surprise to us. The surprise is the fact that we knew it was coming and we didn't do anything to intervene, interrupt or prevent it," March told CBC News. 

Halfway through 2019 — which had a record 492 shootings that claimed 44 lives —  March said shootings in the city had become an epidemic.

Now, he believes the constant news of COVID-19 has eclipsed shootings, which have been trending up the entire year. And groups are still having to do their work. 

March said the closures across the city meant people couldn't seek out a safe space like a community centre or even a local Tim Hortons or McDonalds — they had to be constantly moving. 

"These people are desperate, they're in transit all the time," he said.

On Monday, a man was shot while driving on Highway 401 in Scarborough when someone pulled up in a car next to him and opened fire.

While people might "act surprised" about the numbers each year, March said it's come to a point where political leaders are "not only acknowledging it but anticipating" a spike in shootings during the summer. 

"What are they doing to prepare for that because that's not going to stop by itself," he asked. 

Louis March, the founder of the Zero Gun Violence movement, says the pandemic has meant the closure of safe spaces that provide an escape for people in at-risk neighbourhoods. (CBC)

Toronto Mayor John Tory called the gun violence this past weekend "deeply concerning and unacceptable" and said the only way to reduce gun violence is to invest in programs and initiatives that address its root causes.

He also repeated his call for a change to laws related to bail and sentencing for repeat offenders, as well as for support of the police and help from all three levels of government. 

March said increasing programming isn't the solution if the additions aren't based on community needs, operations and engagement. Everything right now, he says, is "band-aid" reactionary work. 

"I want to see legitimate action, concrete action, sustainable investment in communities, capital investment" he said.

"We can talk about roots all we want, but let's start thinking bigger. This is Toronto, a very rich and resourceful city. We can be more innovative and we can have an impact if we go to who's planting the seeds."

Marcell Wilson, who founded the One by One Movement — a "boots on the ground" advocacy group aiming to decrease extreme acts of violence among youth — said the recent shootings and pandemic closures also have him frustrated. 

After-school programs run by groups like his weren't considered essential during Stage 1 or Stage 2 of the reopening plan.

Wilson said it was "baffling" but they continued to serve the best they could by heading into neighbourhoods wearing gloves and masks and physically distancing. But the closures due to the pandemic made it more likely they would "lose kids" who were in danger of falling victim to violence.

Former gang member Marcell Wilson, seen here in this file photo, runs an advocacy group to keep young people away from gun violence. He says their work has been hindered by the pandemic closures. (Mia Sheldon/CBC)

It's fair to have thought the numbers might drop because of the ongoing pandemic, Wilson said.

He added that even his group was somewhat surprised that the number didn't drop. But he said COVID-19 doesn't mitigate the risk factors that lead to acts of violence, such as fights over social media. 

The root causes of extreme violence are being talked about more often, Wilson said, but people "cannot keep doing what we know doesn't work." He said red tape is hindering advocacy groups from getting the work done.

"There is money there, there are resources out there. The problem is the right groups are not receiving that money," he said.

"We're sort of sticking to a status quo of the squeaky wheel gets oiled rather than people whose work could be really effective. That's troublesome for us." 

Closures 'exacerbate' access to programming

Julius Haag, an assistant professor sociology with the University of Toronto at Mississauga, said it's difficult to say how the pandemic will affect overall crime trends, but acknowledged it might make the problem worse. 

"The existing social and structural issues that we have in Toronto that have contributed to rising gun violence haven't been reduced or haven't been addressed through the pandemic," he said.

"If anything, we see that the closure of spaces for young people and the lack of access to programs and services may actually exacerbate some of these issues." 

"Without them being prioritized, we see that young people are going to be placed in situations that are potentially going to be dangerous," he said.

Haag said that while the "instinctual response" might be to turn to the police force for public safety, and while people might see politicians "taking action," the types of solutions needed are long-term ones. 

The post-pandemic world has him concerned, as do potential cuts to services and programs in the city's budget if Toronto doesn't get financial help from both levels of government to compensate for the pandemic. 

"I hope it will not be an excuse for people to not invest in the programs that people need to prevent crime and violence."

With files from Radio-Canada, Angelina King