The pandemic’s spiky trajectory gave rise to an emergency shelter at Tom Brown Arena in mid-January, some 70 homeless souls crashing on cots spaced neatly on the warm ice pad.
Outside, Hintonburg slept uneasily.
Residents in the Bayview/Scott Street area were soon encountering open drug use, tossed syringes, old crack pipes and stray booze bottles. There was night-time screaming, late-hour coming-and-going, the odd person sleeping on the sidewalk, the sighting of a naked man on a bench, people out-and-about in obvious mental distress.
“Every day was getting worse and worse,” said Cheryl Parrott, a longtime member of the Hintonburg Community Association with, at home, a front-row view to Tom Brown.
“The issues are still increasing, every day. There was huge concern in the community. Some of the people are totally spiralling out of control.”
Tom Brown had been a daytime-only respite centre for most of the pandemic for needy residents to catch a meal, get a warm shower, find companionship and support, get help with vaccinations and medical care.
But, in mid-January, a COVID outbreak in the city’s regular shelter system forced downtown clients to disperse and find temporary relief elsewhere. The city settled on Tom Brown, fairly central and right on the LRT system. Out came the cots.
“It’s an emergency measure in the midst of an emergency,” Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper said. “We didn’t have a script on how to handle a pandemic in our shelters.”
While some of the initial issues have been addressed — there is regular trash and needle pickup now — there is still suspicion about plopping an instant homeless shelter on the edge of a neighbourhood that, along with a resurgent sense of renewal, has its own social problems.
Leiper and others say there has been a noticeable increase in the number of crimes being reported, like break-and-enters, thefts and property damage.
Just ask “Just Gerry.” Another resident on Tom Brown’s doorstep, he awoke one morning in late April to find his $4,000 electric motorcycle had been stolen. Worse, he discovered the thief had actually entered his apartment, wandered about, only to snatch his wallet and phone.
“He came right beside me, in my sleep.” Gerry checked his surveillance camera. The thief arrived on the property at 5:17 a.m., took the bike and returned 10 minutes later to enter his apartment. (Gerry had arrived home soaking wet the evening before and, in his rush to remove his helmet and soggy clothes, had left the key in the door lock.)
Gerry said he recognized the thief as a shelter client. He related how his neighbour’s van was broken into and a neighbour’s wallet brazenly taken from a back deck with her only steps away.
“It’s not a shelter. It’s an arena,” the 62-year-old said. “That bunch has to go.” Surviving on a disability cheque of $1,200 a month, he said it took him 40 months to save enough to buy the electric vehicle, which has not been recovered.
The city is doing what it can. There are daily patrols to pick up needles or drug equipment, a private security firm is making regular outdoor rounds, and police have been asked to keep an extra eye out.
Relief appears on the way. The city had aimed to close the overnight shelter at the end of April, but that was extended to May 31. Leiper said this week that target looks achievable as Tom Brown has already stopped accepting new referrals.
The day respite centre, meanwhile, is expected to stay open until late summer, when operations will move to a building on Catherine Street.
At some point, Tom Brown will gets its ice sheet back.
It speaks well of Hintonburg to recognize how well the respite centre (opened in November 2020) was received, if not embraced. Area groups were quick to donate food, volunteers came forward and area stores like Giant Tiger were the source of regular donations.
But the overnight crowd, Parrott notes, is a different population.
“There’s a lot of compassion for these people, but it’s terrifying for the neighbours when you have someone out-of-control, screaming and yelling, and even, we heard one night, lunging at people.”
(If nothing else, one feels for what the ByWard Market and Lowertown have endured for 40 years — neighbours enlisted as watchful social workers over the city’s most troubled people.)
There are, no doubt, lessons here about the pitfalls of dropping an emergency shelter in the middle of an unsuspecting urban neighbourhood. And a worry — given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic — about whether Tom Brown’s ice pad will be needed again.
“There is an unease about whether this will ever end,” Parrott said.
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