Toronto

Concerns over respite centre prompt calls for understanding

Some Liberty Village-area business owners say they're frustrated by a nearby temporary respite centre and are concerned by what they say is an increase in breaks-ins and needles in the area since it opened its doors.

'They are just people like we are all people, they just happen to be struggling right now'

The St. Felix Centre first opened its doors in Liberty Village in December 2018. The centre's executive director, Brian Harris, says the vast majority of people living and working in the area are "extremely supportive" of it. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Some business owners say they're frustrated by a temporary respite centre in the west end and are concerned by what they say is an increase in breaks-ins and needles in the area since it opened its doors.

Tiana Nguyen has operated a nail salon for the past nine years. For the first eight, she says, she never had any trouble.

But this year, in the span of just a few months, she says her salon has been broken into three times: first in March, a second time in April and again just this week on July 4.

Between the property damage and the stolen cash, Nguyen says she's lost close to $3,000.

"It's unfair to us," Nguyen said, admitting she doesn't know if the incidents are linked or if anyone using the centre is connected with them. "Each time we pay by pocket."

The St. Felix Centre first opened in its doors on Fraser Street in Liberty Village in December 2018. One of three such dome-shaped respite structures in the city, it's a temporary measure for about 100 people unable to find space in Toronto's strained shelter system. 

Calls to police increase

Toronto Police confirm they've received an increased number of calls for service in 14 Division over the past several months.

They say they've recently added district special constables and school engagement officers temporarily, in addition to their ongoing bike patrols and two teams of neighbourhood officers in the area.

The centre's executive director, Brian Harris, says the vast majority of people living and working in the area are "extremely supportive" of it.

Why in such a prosperous country do we have so much poverty, should be the question.-Brian Harris, respite centre executive director
Toronto's board of health chair, Coun. Joe Cressy, says that while he has heard concerns about the centre, he's also been encouraged by shows of support from the community, including an initiative called "Project Comfort" that's worked to welcome those at the centre through events like barbecues and Christmas carol singing.

But Harris acknowledges not everyone in the neighbourhood is happy about the centre and that staff have taken steps to help alleviate any negative impact on those nearby. 

Among those measures is a community safety team of two staff who pick up needles, check in with local businesses and work to address any concerns they have day-to-day. As well, two staff members are stationed in the parking lot outside the centre so that those working nearby feel safe going to and coming from their vehicles. 

'No ideal place'

That's not enough for Christianne Corpuz.

An employee at a barbershop not far from the centre, Corpuz says she recently walked into work to find several used drug needles near its doorstep.
Tiana Nguyen has operated a nail salon in the neighbourhood for the past nine years. For the first eight, she says, she never had any trouble. But this year, in the span of just a few months, she says her salon has been broken into three times. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

"It was really dangerous because they were just everywhere, so that is something definitely not usual in this neighbourhood... It was definitely scary to see," she said. 

At a nearby catering company, Cynthia Wu says she hasn't seen any needles herself, but has seen people come by and yell at staff when they're working outside.

"There's no ideal place for the centre ... It still needs to be there because people still need it."

Harris says he understands the centre is going to have an impact on the community, but would like to see people be more understanding and ask bigger questions about the lack of affordable housing in the city.

"You don't need to be afraid of the individuals who come to use these services. They are just people like we are all people, they just happen to be struggling right now with a variety of challenges that you and I don't have to," he said.

1,000 beds set to open by next year

"Why in such a prosperous country do we have so much poverty, should be the question."

The centre will close eventually. But with the wait list for affordable housing 181,000 people long, it's unknown when that might be.

The city is planning to open 1,000 new shelter beds by 2020. It's also working to put up 11 pieces of city property to be converted into affordable housing, with a report coming this fall expected to identify other possible sites.

Earlier this week, Mayor John Tory also said he's hopeful that a proposal to provincial and federal governments for an affordable housing allowance that would help to subsidize the cost of rent will help alleviate the city's affordable housing challenges. 

Until then, Harris hopes residents can keep in mind, "The guests who come and stay with us here, they didn't get to choose that this structure was built in this neighbourhood.

"They don't have anywhere else to go."