Kelly Egan: ‘Out of control’ — Sudden mob of homeless upsets Hintonburg

“There was huge concern in the community. Some people are getting totally out of control.”

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The spiky trajectory of the pandemic resulted in emergency shelter at the Tom Brown Arena in mid-January, with some 70 homeless people crashing into neatly spaced cots on the hot rink.

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Outside, Hintonburg slept uncomfortably.

Residents of the Bayview/Scott Street area were soon confronted with open drug use, thrown syringes, old crack pipes and errant liquor bottles. There were night screams, late comings and goings, the strange person sleeping on the sidewalk, the sighting of a naked man on a bench, people moving back and forth in obvious mental distress.

“Every day just got worse and worse,” said Cheryl Parrott, a longtime member of the Hintonburg Community Association with a prominent view of Tom Brown at home.

“The problems are still increasing, every day. There was great concern in the community. Some people get totally out of control.

Tom Brown had been a day-only respite center for most of the pandemic for residents in need to get a meal, take a hot shower, find companionship and support, get help with vaccinations and medical care.

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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, quite central and right on the LRT system. The cots are out.

“This is an emergency measure in the midst of an emergency,” Kitchissippi County said. says Jeff Leiper. “We didn’t have a script on how to handle a pandemic in our shelters.”

Although some of the initial problems have been resolved – there are now regular litter and needle pick-ups – there are still suspicions that a homeless shelter has been set up instantly on the edge of a neighborhood which, 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 reported crimes, such as break and enters, thefts and property damage.

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Residents around Tom Brown Arena say the onset of spring has seen an increase in debris and needles near the temporary homeless shelter.  This submitted photo shows the scene near the Bayview LRT station.
Residents around Tom Brown Arena say the onset of spring has seen an increase in debris and needles near the temporary homeless shelter. This submitted photo shows the scene near the Bayview LRT station. .jpg

Just ask “Just Gerry”. Another resident on Tom Brown’s doorstep, he woke up one morning in late April to find his $4,000 electric motorcycle had been stolen. Worse still, he discovered that the thief had actually entered his apartment, walked around, to snatch his wallet and phone.

“He came right next to me, in my sleep.” Gerry checked his surveillance camera. The thief arrived at the property at 5:17 a.m., took the bike and returned 10 minutes later to enter his apartment. (Gerry had arrived home soaked the night before and, in his haste to remove his soggy helmet and clothes, had left the key in the door lock.)

Gerry said he recognized the thief as a guest at the shelter. He recounted how his neighbour’s van was broken into and a neighbour’s wallet brazenly taken from a back patio just steps away from her.

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“It is not a refuge. It’s an arena,” the 62-year-old said. “This group has to go.” Surviving on a $1,200-a-month disability check, he said it took him 40 months to save enough to buy the electric vehicle, which was not recovered.

The city is doing what it can. There are daily patrols to collect needles or drug equipment, a private security company makes regular rounds outside and the police have been asked to keep an extra eye.

Relief appears on the way. The city had aimed to close the overnight shelter at the end of April, but that was extended until May 31. Leiper said this week the goal seemed achievable because Tom Brown had already stopped accepting new referrals.

The day respite center, meanwhile, is expected to remain open until the end of the summer, when operations will be moved to a building on Catherine Street.

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At some point, Tom Brown will reclaim his ice cap.

This speaks well of Hintonburg to recognize how well received, if not embraced, the respite center (opened November 2020) has been. 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 neighbors when you have someone out of control, screaming and screaming, and even, we heard one night, rushing at people .”

(If nothing else, it feels like what Byward Market and Lowertown have endured for 40 years—neighbours enlisted as vigilant social workers to the city’s most troubled people.)

There are, no doubt, lessons here about the pitfalls of setting up emergency shelter in the middle of an unsuspecting urban neighborhood. And a concern – given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic – about whether Tom Brown’s rink will be needed again.

“There’s an unease about whether this will ever end,” Parrott said.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email kegan@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

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