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Christeen Thornton, an Oshawa-based activist and founder of a local anti-poverty group, near the John Street bridge, on Oct. 8.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The John Street bridge spans Oshawa Creek, the stream that flows through the heart of this automaking hub just east of Toronto. Christeen Thornton was crossing it one day this summer when she heard a strange sound.

At first she thought there was something wrong with her car. But when she went back to investigate, she spotted a small box fixed to the concrete underside of the bridge. It was giving off a piercing, high-pitched noise that assaulted her ears, forcing her to cover them with her hands and back away.

Ms. Thornton had stumbled across Oshawa’s first people repellant. With no announcement or public debate, the city installed it last year to keep the people who roam the city’s streets from gathering under the bridge. Like a recorded hawk cry aimed at preventing pigeons from roosting at a mall or an ultrasonic blaster that claims to drive mice out of a house, it is intended to keep pests away, only in this case the targets are human.

Ms. Thornton did some research. Such devices are designed to discourage loitering and “anti-social behaviour” by producing an intense, high-frequency sound. Many are aimed at driving off noisy teens. The Mosquito anti-loitering alarm, says its British manufacturer, “works by emitting an alternating high-frequency tone at 16 to 18.5 kilohertz,” inaudible to those over about 25 but “intensely irritating” to those under that age. Owners can switch to an “all-age” setting for use against others.

Ms. Thornton posted an outraged Tik Tok video calling it an act of “psychological warfare” against Oshawa’s most stigmatized people: those who are homeless and struggling with addictions. The device, she says, is expressly designed to cause them pain, for no other crime than seeking shelter under a bridge. “I thought we were done with corporal punishment,” says the 33-year-old mother of two, who founded a local anti-poverty group and calls herself Oshawa’s squeaky wheel.

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A high-pitched sound device intended to deter people from loitering is affixed to the underside of the bridge.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

She is not the only one who is upset. City councillor Brian Nicholson says that subjecting vulnerable people to an unbearable noise is simply “cruel.” If the city sent in enforcers to beat the homeless with sticks, people would be outraged. “And I see this in the same vein. It’s just not the role of government to inflict pain.”

Oshawa’s homeless say the space under the John Street bridge was one of the only places left where they could hang out without being bothered. Jake Kidman, 30, said security guards are always telling him and his friends to move along. “Out of sight out of mind is what they tell us. Well, how can we be out of sight if there’s nowhere to go.”

Several other cities that deployed the noise devices have had to back down under public pressure. Winnipeg, for one, installed four under bridges and overpasses in 2020, only to silence them after an online backlash. So far, Oshawa shows no sign of following suit.

When Ms. Thornton complained to the city, she got a note back from security manager Haik Beglarov, who called it a Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, measure. The area under the bridge had been the site of gun violence, drug use, overdoses and robberies, he said. In response, the city stepped up patrols there, put in better lighting and installed the noise device.

When The Globe asked about the decision, Oshawa’s communications department replied with a similar statement. Many residents, it said, feared for their safety while using a walking and cycling trail that runs under the bridge. It said officials turned down the device’s volume after complaints this summer. They also hired an acoustic engineer to test noise levels in the area. The engineer found it no louder than “a dishwasher or a conversation at one metre apart.”

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A sharps disposal bin under the bridge.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Disputes like the one over the noise device have been going on across the country as cities struggle with the opioids crisis and the housing crunch, linked problems whose effects are visible on their streets. The argument is especially sharp in Oshawa. The booming community of 170,000 is trying to overcome its image as a grey and gritty industrial centre. City boosters point to its modern colleges and universities, robust job market, reviving downtown, craft breweries and new hotels.

But it’s hard to ignore the host of marginalized people who populate parts of the city, visiting its shelters, soup kitchens and methadone clinics. One count found there were 573 people experiencing homelessness in Oshawa and its surrounding region, Durham, in 2021. That was up from 291 in 2018. Durham had a record of 130 opioid-related deaths last year, more than four times the figure in 2015.

Under Mayor Dan Carter, Oshawa has taken a strict line about disorder in its downtown. It hired security guards to patrol its sidewalks, forced a group that handed out snacks in a park to move and knocked down an informal monument to those who have died on city streets. Elected in 2018, Mr. Carter was once homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol himself, but went to rehab, recovered and became a local broadcaster and businessman.

Many residents support him. In fact, some would like him to go further.

They say the downtown has gone downhill, with discarded needles in the parks and scary-looking people on the corners. “I’d love to come down with my grandkids and enjoy downtown, but I can’t,” says James Bountrogiannis, who is running for council in this month’s municipal election and would like to see a crackdown on petty theft and open drug use.

But even he says the noise device is a step too far. “Human beings are human beings, not dogs and cats, and we should treat them that way,” he said.