Mount Pleasant concerned over physical distancing homeless shelter

Residents and businesses near the Roehampton Hotel have expressed safety concerns with the introduction of the homeless shelter in the Mount Pleasant area.

People began moving into the physical distancing shelter on July 3 and into 55–65 Broadway Avenue location. Since then, residents say thefts, robberies, drug paraphernalia and other signs of suspicious activity have increased in the midtown community.

The city opened 34 locations across the city, including these two in the Yonge-Eglinton neighbourhood, to get the most vulnerable off the street during the COVID-19 pandemic in late April.

Susan Pape, a spokesperson with the city’s Infrastructure and Development Services department, said the idea was first presented in March, and a lease was signed by landlord, 2245883 Ontario Inc., mid-May.

Their assessment included the risks of any violence or crime.

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“The site will be staffed 24/7 with additional video security surveillance and there are currently two security guards on-site 24/7,” Pape wrote in an email. “We are taking these steps because we know that many people experiencing homelessness have underlying chronic medical conditions that increase their risk from COVID-19 and this is a particularly vulnerable population.”

A Facebook group called Community Safety–Midtown Toronto was created July 22 as a platform for the community to raise safety concerns.

Mary Hunter, who lives a few blocks southeast of the Roehampton Hotel and is a Deer Park Public School and Northern SS alumna, aired her concerns on the social media website, calling the rise in daytime, open drug use “frightening.” But she is also concerned the neighbourhood will be seen as NIMBYist, she says.

“People are worried about coming across as insensitive to the homeless situation,” she said in a July phone interview. “But we’re scared. We’re living in fear because I’m walking down the street, I’m seeing needles.

“I’ve seen people lying down by the Dollarama, shaking of, I don’t know, if they just took a hit or what.”

Other problems shared through the Facebook group have included robberies, break-ins, delivery theft, threats of violence, and people casing residences in the area.

Hunter said she had already noticed a gradual increase in crime within the Yonge-Eglinton and Mount Pleasant Village neighbourhoods due to the LRT construction. Regardless, the community is coming together to get the city to address their concerns, she said.

“There are two sides to this. There are the people that are really upset and afraid, and then there are the social justice warriors that are, like, you can’t shame the homeless.

“We’re not shaming,” she said. “I’m a lefty. But I think the social justice warrior issue has gone too far. And this is an issue that we can’t just ignore, especially when there are threats of physical harm.”

Support for the most vulnerable

Toronto-St. Paul’s councillor Josh Matlow said the community was caught off guard by the decision to make the Roehampton Hotel a physical distancing shelter, because the the city didn’t notify them ahead of time.

“Even being the other local councillor, I didn’t know about this until after they signed the lease,” Matlow said, in a July phone conversation. “So, it’s been a lot as you can imagine that I have to respond to.”

Residents have been contacting Matlow, Don Valley West councillor Jaye Robinson and Eglinton-Lawrence councillor Mike Colle about their concerns.

Matlow said it’s not an issue that residents do not care about the homeless. The community he knows is caring, thoughtful and the “support for our city’s most vulnerable is unwavering,” he said.

In the midst of a pandemic, the city is also struggling with homelessness and opioid crises.

“It’s important that when there are real safety concerns, it can’t be ignored or written off,” Matlow said. “But it’s delicate. It’s complicated because it often gets into that sort of very polarizing debate, and I’m trying to steer us away from that.”

That’s why he’s asked the city to address the concerns with the community. The neighbourhood will receive a letter soon detailing the agreement and how to be a part of the process.

Matlow wants the meeting to be more than just a listening exercise where people vent.

“We’ve all told the city what the safety concerns are,” he said. “I want them to deliver a very clear and effective plan that will address those concerns without exception, and anything less is unacceptable.”

The online/telephone information session is scheduled for Aug. 19 at 6 p.m. Links can be accessed through the city’s website.

Additionally, there are six schools within walking distance of both the Broadway and Roehampton locations.

Broadway building
ON BROADWAY: The buildings at 55 and 65 Broadway Ave. have also been converted to housing for the homeless during the pandemic.

Jessica Slotnick, a midtown resident who works as a social worker near Dundas and Sherbourne streets, said harm reduction and safe injection sites would be a good start.

“Yes, we’re on the TTC; people can easily get downtown to their support system,” she said in a phone interview. “But they’re going to continue to use at their home because essentially this is their home.”

Downtown there are five safe injection sites within walking distance of Slotnick’s office. But they are not open 24 hours a day. Add the pandemic on to the restrictions and there is no place to go.

“I understand that people are concerned because there are needles being left around,” she said.

“Not everyone in the shelter or the hotel uses drugs,” Slotnick added. “I think that is a concern for people, but I think it’s also the opportunity to educate people, including our children, that this happens, that not everybody is privileged enough to be able to afford a roof over their head and food on their table.”

Keven Menager, community manager for the Mount Pleasant Village BIA, sent a letter to Mayor John Tory about the number of break-ins at midtown businesses, the Homeway restaurant at Mt. Pleasant and Erskine Avenue being one of them.

But the BIA is unwilling to directly attribute the effects to the Roehampton Hotel opening.

“There was a sudden increase in break-ins starting in early July,” Menager said in an email. “Given the similarity between break-ins, my own speculation is that these have been caused by a very small number of individuals who are not representative of the majority of residents of the Roehampton hotel.”

Businesses have expressed their concern for the safety of their staff, businesses and patrons.

Welcome response from the mayor

In his July 29 response, Tory said he takes the safety of the community seriously and worked with the Chief of Police, Mark Saunders, to come up with a strategy to address the concerns.

As part of this strategy the city will provide:

  • An increase in the size of Community Safety Teams assigned to both the Roehampton Hotel and 55–65 Broadway Apartments from two to 7 individuals, 24 hours a day, seven days per week. These teams will patrol the shelter sites and surrounding community and respond to immediate non-police or non-EMS related matters when made aware by the community. Team members will also be checking and patrolling all local schools and businesses, as well as “hotspots” identified by the community.
  • An increase in the presence of Mobile Vehicle Security Patrols to 24 hours a day, seven days a week as of July 31.
  • Four security guards at each site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to monitor all cameras, respond to any security issues and conduct perimeter patrols of the area immediately surrounding the Roehampton and Broadway properties.
  • The installation of five additional security cameras, bringing the total to 33 at the Roehampton Hotel to monitor the building.
  • An increase in the frequency of garbage pickup, including exterior cleaning of the hotel and local TTC shelters and school properties in the area.
  • Inner City Health Associates and others to begin providing mental health supports on-site and Toronto Public Health – The Works, which provides harm reduction services, will be on-site twice per week to provide support in addition to what staff provide 24/7 on the site.
  • Covering of the exterior pool at the Roehampton Hotel to create an outdoor space for residents and an area to congregate and smoke. Also installation of a fence at 820 Mt. Pleasant Road.

Menager said he felt the response from the mayor’s office was appropriate and a welcomed response that addresses the concerns raised by businesses.

“This should make a considerable difference in the short term while city staff and councillors continue their hard work at integrating necessary supports for all affected,” he wrote. “It’s understandable that we were in a unique emergency situation which prevented conventional shelter planning processes being implemented, but we’re catching up and adjusting accordingly.”

Toronto Police Service is also aware of the community’s concerns.

Although it is too early to determine if crime within 53 Division’s purview has increased, the police say they are watching the area more closely.

“We will continue to monitor crime trends in the area and adjust our deployments accordingly,” media relations officer Caroline de Kloet wrote in an email. “We have ongoing patrols in that area and officers will be attending meetings regarding plans by the City and residents’ concerns.”

Residents with concerns about their safety that are non-emergency related can reach out to the city via 416-808-222 or 416-467-0493 to report crimes where no person is in immediate danger.