‘Oh, I don’t feel safe at all’: Toronto Community Housing residents call for solutions to frequent gun violence

A toddler’s birthday party on the eve of the first day of summer was shattered by gunshots. Three children injured, one critically, and it will take some time for the residents of Rexdale’s Tandridge Crescent to recover from yet another shooting that’s symptomatic of gun violence issues that have for years plagued communities run by Canada’s largest social housing provider.

“This was supposed to be an amazing party for the kids, and instead it left people traumatized with everyone screaming and crying,” said neighbour Michelle Cabell two weeks after the shooting left toys and decorations scattered in the yard of a unit at Toronto Community Housing’s Tandridge townhouse development.

“Everybody in the community is furious that it happened,” said Cabell, a longtime resident, explaining her frustration at seeing politicians once again show up in the aftermath of a tragedy with promises she feels hardly ever get fulfilled. Residents have long raised issues such as the need for home repairs, more public resources and recreational facilities, she said.

“And this was an outside problem that came into our community,” she added.

Residents, experts and TCH itself point to the need for collaborative solutions to Toronto’s gun problem; how neither the problem nor the fix for shootings in the city’s hardest-hit hot spots can be addressed in one move.

“There is not one single factor that can result in someone’s use of a gun in an act of violence,” said Amra Munawar, a Rexdale resident and member of the Rexdale Community Hub. “Gun violence could happen at an individual level or community level, and preventing these incidents from happening means intervention at both these levels, and requires policies and legislation that are informed by data,” she said.

That data paints a grim picture of violence on Tandridge Crescent and at many other TCH communities. Four people have been killed and 11 injured by gun violence at or near Tandridge between 2004 and 2020, according to a new police database released earlier this year. The area recorded 26 shootings during that period, which does not include the shooting last month.

The data shows this is far from unique. A large majority of Toronto’s worst hyperlocal gun violence hot spots are near TCH residential properties: Forty-five shootings and five dead near the Edgeley Village Driftwood community — home to the hardest-hit single location in the police database; two hot spots with six total dead near the Thistletown 1 community on Rexdale’s Jamestown Crescent; three locations with more than a dozen shootings each and another six killed on Flemington Road and Varna Drive, a short stretch of road in Lawrence Heights that’s home to four TCH properties.

According to the police data, of the 20 worst single locations in the police data, all but two are at or immediately adjacent a TCH property.

TCH officials say it’s “troubling” that some of their residential buildings and units have been particularly prone to gun violence, but there have been encouraging signs that shootings are decreasing.

According to numbers from the agency’s Community Safety Unit — a team that includes 164 special constables responsible for security and law enforcement inside TCH properties — their facilities were the site of 45 per cent of all Toronto shootings in 2018. That rate fell to 31 per cent in 2020.

“We are very mindful that we house a very vulnerable population that unfortunately have a lot of poverty within it,” said Likwa Nkala, TCH manager of community safety and support.

Nkala said the agency is improving security by installing cameras in hot spot areas to better monitor vehicle and foot traffic, improving lighting and other physical features for safety, as well as adding more security officers and special constables in and around the neighbourhoods to ensure any resident in need of support can get it in a short time.

“We believe our tenants overwhelmingly are law-abiding citizens,” Nkala said, noting that shootings that happen near TCH facilities are often committed by people who don’t necessarily live there.

Dejazmatch James, in red, at an Oct. 14, 2020, vigil for his friend Shane Stanton.

“Oh, I don’t feel safe at all,” said Dejazmatch James, who lives in one of the newly renovated TCH units in Lawrence Heights. For more than 25 years, he’s learned to be mindful of cars driving by and unknown people approaching. Even little things like taking the garbage out. He and other residents constantly think of when it would be safe to do so — for him, it’s early in the morning when potential shooters are likely still asleep.

“It’s basically like, when the sun goes down, I have to be inside of my home to avoid getting hurt.”

James has lost a number of friends to shootings, most recently his childhood friend Shane Stanford — a personal trainer gunned down last October. Investigators do not believe Stanford was specifically targeted and last year said they had not ruled out the possibility he was killed at random — a marker of a rival gang dispute meant to send a message to a neighbourhood.

James and others in the area have started a petition to get a community park named after Stanford in honour of his dedication to helping people.

He says gun violence is a complex issue that needs to be tackled from multiple angles — through poverty reduction programs and job opportunities, community investments that ensure kids “spend more time in the gyms than on the streets,” helping residents become homeowners to “take more pride in their communities,” as well as a strong police-community partnership.

“Having police officers in the area helps, but what happens when police are no longer there?” he said, stressing the need to revise policing to increase public trust.

“It’s hard to catch shooters in action, but I’m sure there’s been times when people who would have wanted to do drive-by shootings have come around and seen police officers in the area and ultimately decided it was not possible then.”

Miguel Avila, a resident of 220 Oak St., a TCH highrise in Regent Park that’s also been a longtime hot spot, agrees policing needs to be reformed in ways that make people feel like they are part of efforts to protect their own communities.

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Damaging police practices like carding and the perception of racial profiling have long “created more problems than solutions,” he said. It’s important to increase police accountability — by using body-worn cameras for instance — but it’s equally vital to ensure money goes to better community investments to fight against poverty as the root cause of gun violence, he added.

Gun violence is an issue facing many large public housing providers, said Robert Silverman, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Buffalo and researcher of affordable housing and inequity in urban communities.

In the U.S., many public housing entities have their own police departments — like the TCH Community Safety Unit — and they work with tenant councils through community policing and neighbourhood watch initiatives to increase trust and provide an extra layer of security.

Gun violence is aggravated by poverty and, of course, many of the social housing projects are occupied by residents with low income and poor job prospects, he said. But these tenants also benefit from paying rent prices that are adjusted to their incomes, as well as living in places that are kept in relatively decent condition.

One key U.S. initiative, he said, has been giving residents a full range of options for where to live through the housing choice voucher program. Residents get a voucher from a housing authority and then they can use it on market-rate housing anywhere — with the voucher covering the difference between market-rate rent and 30 per cent of the renter’s household income.

“The long-term goal is to deconcentrate public housing and subsidized housing so residents live in places with better access to jobs, services, educational resources, and upward mobility in general,” Silverman said.

Toronto does have a system of subsidized rent geared to income, with the same target of 30 per cent of a poorer household’s income, however, the subsidy is largely tied to existing TCH units and has extremely long waiting lists.

Gouveia, TCH director of programs and partnerships, said increased collaboration between city agencies, Toronto police, and tenant groups has been key to helping reduce shootings.

These include employment programs and youth services, mentorship programs as well as organized sports activities such as Midnight Madness — a basketball tournament TCH organizes three times a year for young people impacted by gun violence.

“We are working in a more integrated way than we have historically,” she said describing the importance of letting residents be part of the solution, particularly young and racialized people.

“Zero gun violence may not be realistic in my lifetime but I’m optimistic that we can work together and change circumstances for this generation and next.”

Police have made two arrests in connection to the birthday party shooting. They say it was sparked by an argument between two men at the party before multiple shooters engaged.

Residents of Tandridge Crescent are arguing against a plan to build a modular housing complex, saying it should not replace the community basketball court.

For Cabell and others on Tandridge Crescent, the disconnect between the community and city authorities is clear in a proposal to build a modular housing unit in the Tandridge community that would bring more than 100 apartments in the area to house underprivileged people, including the homeless.

Many local residents are opposed — “We have one basketball court, and now they want to destroy it,” Cabell explained, adding the idea would “add poverty on top of poverty.”

One of her children is friends with the five-year-old girl who was shot in the head and critically wounded at the birthday party. Two boys, one and 11, were also shot and have since been released from hospital.

Cabell and other members of the Tandridge Community Collective Group have started a GoFundMe page to collect donations to support the affected family.

“They need help. Everyone here needs help,” she said, recounting how she ran into a panicked crowd to find her own kids, and had to cover her son’s eyes as they went past the wounded kid.

TORONTO STAR