BIA, police host homelessness forum at Cathedral

Eric Morse —

Two pieces of good news emerged from an October 10 community liaison meeting with 51 Division of Toronto Police Services organized by the St Lawrence Neighbourhood BIA to address concerns about homelessness and attendant crime issues in the area.

The first is that in all of 51 Division (which covers everything from the Don to Yonge St and from the lake to Bloor) the St Lawrence BIA (which covers everything south of Queen and west of Parliament) has among the lightest incidences of major crime in the division, according to the seven major crime indicators used by TPS (murder, assault, sexual assault, robbery, break and enter, auto theft and theft over $5,000).

The second, offered by Staff Sgt John Spanton in response to a question from The Bulletin, is that the new park areas in the southeast of the division, Corktown Common and Underpass Park, are seeing a high level of public use and a negligible level of homeless occupancy and its associated issues, at least according to public feedback received in the division.

In the course of a presentation to a disappointingly low turnout of residents and BIA members at St James Cathedral Centre, Sgt Spanton made the point that 51 Division’s assessments of the level of homeless or criminal activity in any area are entirely based on public input – “you are our eyes and ears.” He noted that for its whole area of coverage, the division deploys a maximum of about 130 uniformed officers, with about 15 to 17 in cars on the street at any time. In addition there is a community response team of up to 40 officers divided into four shifts of 7 or 8 officers on bikes or foot patrol. The car patrols respond to 911 calls or 416 808-2222. If they think a situation requires community response follow-up, they pass it on to the community response unit.

Spanton laid emphasis on the importance of the Community Complaint Form, which is available from and directed to his office. If residents of a specific area are having recurreing problems (aggressive panhandlers, or homeless persons with obvious mental issues and causing a disturbance, they should fill out one of these forms and the Community Response Unit will adjust its deployments to give the area a closer look. Spanton also noted that in the case of people with mental issues there is very little either police or health authorities can do: “often they’re back on the street before we finish the paperwork at St Mike’s.”

He also noted several community-based remedies which have been applied successfully in other neighbourhoods, highlighting the neighbourhood safety walks of laneways and parks that are regularly organized by residents’ associations and their local Councillor in neighbourhoods such as Cabbagetown (which had two this summer). These examine lighting and blind spaces where illicit activity can occur. 51 Division also offers safety talks and tips to community gatherings organized by neighbourhood residents.

Both Spanton and his co-presenter Pat Marcello of the city’s Streets to Homes program noted a firm distinction between homeless people and criminals who prey on them. Homeless persons may choose to live on the street for very practical reasons; they may well consider a welfare payment better spent on food than on shelter. But concentrations of homeless in areas where there are shelters attract criminal elements (petty thieves and drug dealers) who are the ones responsible for raising the level of hazard in a community. Streets to Homes tackles the problem “upstream” by finding homes for homeless people and teaching them the necessary skills to keep themselves housed, and helping arrange (and in some cases guarantee) payments to landlords to prevent eviction (he noted that there is now a 7-year waiting list for subsidized housing in Toronto). Toronto Police Services get the “downstream” end. Marcello also offered to accompany any safety walks that neighbourhood associations organize.

Downtown resident John Stojsic commented that often, direct discussions with shelter managements are useful in preventing or managing problems in areas immediately adjacent. He cited an example of his neighbourhood bringing the problem of food distribution in the street late at night to shelter managements’ attention.

With specific respect to St James’s Park, one of the original concerns of the meeting, Sgt Spanton suggested that the engagement of security guards by BIA and/or residents’ associations might be one approach to any identified problem.

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