Guns, gangs and Toronto Community Housing

Below is an opinion piece I submitted to the Etobicoke Guardian in the wake of the deadly shootings in Scarborough. Gun violence in and around Toronto Community Housing properties is not a new problem. In May, I addressed the TCH Board on this subject. The text of my remarks is here.

The call to action to improve security infrastructure is supported by a safety audit from Toronto Police and Toronto Community Housing and a comprehensive audit from the Metropoliton Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children.

At last week’s City Council meeting, a motion requesting the Federal Government to consider funding security infrastructure was up for debate. It was deferred until October. Some media reaction is here.

Danzig shooting only a matter of time

Picture the situation: a crowded party, gang members, guns and a situation with all the ingredients for things to spin out of control. Shots ring out, bullets connect with bodies and people flee.

This did not happen in Scarborough. It happened several weeks ago in a club in Rexdale. One difference was that the victim, shot in the face, survived. The other difference was that it went widely unreported in the media. There was no outrage, no call to action and no meeting with the Premier.

The same can be said for any number of shootings in Rexdale and around Toronto, concentrated in and around Toronto Community Housing properties. Children find bullets in bushes beside a school, mothers find shell casings outside their front doors, the police investigate and the silence from the community is deafening. We should not be surprised about what happened in Scarborough and we should be as outraged with ourselves for not demanding action on guns and gangs as we are with the gangsters who terrorize our communities.

In times like this, citizens look to their political leaders either for action or to lay blame. Are we spending enough on programs for at-risk youth? Do we provide enough recreation programming for young people? Are we funding Toronto Community Housing adequately? Are we creating job opportunities?

In Rexdale, we have been working on solutions for the past 18 months. This summer, Toronto Police’s TAVIS program returned to Ward 1. TAVIS combines concerted, targeted policing with community outreach. It provides extra resources to track down the type of criminals who disregard the safety of our community but also builds bridges between law enforcement and residents, and develops partnerships with the people closest to Rexdale’s at-risk youth.

These relationships develop slowly however, and many residents are reluctant to talk to police. When a shooting happens, witnesses or people with information are sometimes unwilling to come forward. This is why last year I undertook a process to audit the safety of the Jamestown Mount Olive Toronto Community Housing properties in Ward 1.

One audit, conducted by Toronto Police and Toronto Community Housing, confirmed that some security cameras were not functioning and that there were other locations where cameras could be in place. A broader audit, conducted by the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) gave public housing properties a grade of D-.

METRAC was concerned with dark spots on the properties, the lack of security cameras and poor access to public transport and amenities. I took these concerns to the Toronto Community Housing Board several months ago and received a commitment that the company would try to find the money to invest in the safety its Rexdale residents.

More importantly, I brought a motion to City Council requesting the Federal Government to allocate some of the savings from cancelling the Federal Gun Registry into a grants fund for security infrastructure that already exists, but does not apply to public housing properties. Ironically, this was to be debated just days prior to the Scarborough shootings.

Toronto City Council will debate this issue when it returns after the summer break and in the meantime, I suspect discussions will occur across the city and with the municipal, provincial and federal governments on what can be done to ensure residents in our at-risk neighbourhoods have the opportunity to live in safety.

Politicians cannot do it alone. The City of Toronto and the provincial and federal governments cannot spend their way out of gun violence. We cannot police our way out it or social engineer our way out of it. We must seize opportunities to do things better when they present themselves: smarter policing, zero tolerance for gangs and guns in public housing and broad, democratic public engagement for solutions.

Communities are the most important component in changing a culture that takes a nonchalant attitude toward violence. Honest conversations among family, friends and neighbours about parenting, values, role models and education need to happen. This is not a time to lay blame on the mistakes of specific communities, government or the police. It is a time to look forward, set higher standards for how our neighbourhoods will function and commit to following through.