TORONTO — Two groups traded barbs at opposing protests in Toronto on Saturday morning, bringing to a head a simmering dispute over buildings in the midtown neighbourhood that have been repurposed to house the homeless.
Separated by a line of a dozen police officers, the groups chanted and carried signs near the Roehampton Hotel, which is being used as one of the housing facilities.
Protestors on one side of the issue argue the sudden implementation of the city’s homeless housing strategy — which began in May and was spurred by the rapid spread of COVID-19 through the city’s shelter system — has made their community unsafe.
Residents have complained about an increase in the number of used needles lying around and an uptick in burglaries and thefts.
Police say more area residents have been calling them since the facilities opened, but said there’s no evidence at this point connecting the reported crimes with those living in the buildings.
The counter-protesters argue the residents’ disdain is misdirected at the homeless population, and they should instead focus on bolstering mental health supports and understanding their new neighboursf.
But Tammy McLean, who’s lived in the area since 1969 and helped organize the protest, said her health clinic down the street was broken into just days after the hotel opened its doors to the homeless.
While she said she is supportive of housing programs, McLean also said the city has not addressed the issue of community safety.
“The analogy I like to use is the city basically pulled a pin on a grenade and just dropped it on the corner of Mount Pleasant and Eglinton, and we’ve had to deal with the fallout,” McLean said.
Along with a two-year lease on the Roehampton Hotel, the city also acquired a temporary lease for two buildings on a nearby street.
Those two buildings, which currently house more than 100 residents, will be completely vacant by September, as the developer prepares to demolish the buildings later this year.
On the other side of the argument, counter-protesters said a number of the protest’s organizers have displayed hatred and contempt for the homeless population, which they said has made many of the people living in the buildings feel unwelcome.
One of the counter-protesters, Gurpreet Chahal, said she joined the Facebook group that organized the protest and saw numerous instances of members sharing photos and videos of homeless people in the area or simply people who were assumed to be homeless.
“They were posting photos of people being carried out of the shelter that had (overdosed) in body bags,” Chahal said.
Chahal, who has lived in the neighbourhood since April, said she felt like the posts were “fear-mongering,” adding that she has never felt unsafe while walking around the area.
She also acknowledged that some people may have legitimate grievances, but says the way the protest group has gone about the issue is not constructive.
Another one of the organizers, Jeffrey Miles, who is also a harm reduction worker, said the residents have a right to be concerned about community safety, but he argues the onus is on the government to address the systemic issues.
At the top of Miles’ list is a safe supply system: the government-mandated distribution of substances like opioids, which would help eliminate the issue of people stealing to fund the purchase of street drugs.
“It seems like the problem is misunderstood from the other side,” Miles said. “People don’t understand substance use issues and how they come about.”
In response to the protests, councillor Josh Matlow has asked for support from Ontario Premier Doug Ford in providing more robust mental health care and harm reduction services in the area.
“These incidents are the result of a shelter community that has a significant need for mental health and addiction supports,” Matlow said in a statement.
“Many of these shelter clients were released from provincially regulated mental health or correctional facilities without a housing plan in place. As a result, the housing of these individuals has become the responsibility of the City.”
Matlow, who is one of the architects of the city’s COVID-19 housing plan, also cited a number of changes being made to the facilities, such as the installation of security cameras and round-the-clock safety teams who will be recovering discarded needles.
A virtual town hall-style meeting on the situation is planned for the coming week.