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Cindy Malachowski says that with most of its services for vulnerable people located within a few blocks, from shelters to soup kitchens to methadone clinics, central Oshawa has become a magnet for trouble.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Cindy Malachowski runs Lord Simcoe Place, a 51,000-square-foot office complex in Oshawa, the historic automaking hub just east of Toronto. It’s a well-kept business in the heart of downtown, steps from an art gallery, a public park and a bar serving coffee, wine and craft beer.

But not long ago, someone set its garbage bins on fire. Someone else pulled a knife on the superintendent. An intruder walked into one tenant’s office and stole everything on the desk – snacks, pens, a stapler.

Overdoses are a common occurrence on the streets outside. So are thefts, sexual assaults and vandalism. Four people were murdered downtown in the first quarter of the year, including a pawnshop employee shot outside his store and a young woman found stabbed to death just up the street from Lord Simcoe.

Many residents are fed up. Like many Canadian cities, Oshawa is suffering from a stubborn epidemic of homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. Ms. Malachowski says that with most of its services for vulnerable people located within a few blocks, from shelters to soup kitchens to methadone clinics, central Oshawa has become a magnet for trouble.

It’s a complaint being heard across the country. Faced with a rising tide of urban disorder, cities and charities have been throwing resources at the problem, opening safe-injection sites, building shelters and handing out more drug-use supplies, food and clothing. That creates a magnet effect, according to some local politicians, shopkeepers and residents – placing the disorder right on their doorsteps.

In Vancouver, vulnerable people have long gravitated to the Downtown Eastside. They are drawn by the mild West Coast climate and a host of services, including soup kitchens, subsidized housing and 10 of the city’s 12 safe-drug-use sites.

A Simon Fraser University study in 2016 found that about half of the Downtown Eastside residents experiencing homelessness and mental illness had migrated there from somewhere else. Despite the “high concentration” of the services, they “experienced significant personal decline rather than recovery, as evidenced by their involvements with criminal justice, large increases in acute care and prolonged homelessness,” the study reported.

In April, Mayor Ken Sim ordered the removal of a sidewalk encampment after authorities said it was a serious fire hazard and warned about rising crime.

A group of businesses in London, Ont., circulated a petition last fall complaining about break-ins and smashed windows. In Edmonton, a downtown business coalition said open drug use and other forms of “social disorder” were keeping some companies from investing.

In Ottawa, downtown merchants complain about homeless people sleeping in their entryways or panhandling aggressively on the sidewalks. The Lowertown Community Association argues that putting most of the services for the homeless in Lowertown and the nearby ByWard Market, a popular tourist spot, is unfair.

But others say it is only natural to put the services for the vulnerable in the place where most of them are.

“I always invite people to try and imagine what would happen if you took those agencies completely out of an urban centre,” Oshawa City Councillor Derek Giberson said.

City centres have always attracted struggling people and would continue to do so even if the services were more dispersed, he says. Take away those services, and they would become more desperate and disoriented, only adding to the disorder.

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Street-involved people gather across the street from Lord Simcoe Place, a 51,000-square-foot office complex in Oshawa, Ont., on April 20.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

In Oshawa, a fast-growing community of 170,000 an hour’s drive from Toronto, locals have been talking about the magnet effect for years.

In the 1960s, a group of local churches got together to open the first shelter for the homeless, a modest effort that offered a few shelter beds in a downtown house. Since then, services have proliferated, most of them on or near Simcoe Street, the main north-south downtown thoroughfare, where Lord Simcoe Place stands.

Right across from Lord Simcoe is the Back Door mission in the yellow-brick Simcoe Street United Church. It began as a small outreach program in 1998, but has since expanded to offer showers, washrooms, meals, groceries, sterile drug supplies and a number of free programs, from addiction counselling to mental-health support.

Down the street, opposite Memorial Park, is Cornerstone, the main emergency shelter for men in Oshawa, which includes a halfway house for men coming out of prison. Across the street, the AIDS Committee of Durham Region hands out drug-use supplies.

Further down Simcoe stands the headquarters of Durham Outlook for the Needy, a soup kitchen that has been operating for more than 30 years and reopened in a spacious new building a year ago. Then comes First Light Foundation of Hope, which runs a drop-in centre and offers counselling. Still further along is Do Unto Others (DUO), an all-night drop-in run by a pair of local women.

The head of Cornerstone shelter, Robert Brglez, says that it is no mystery why Oshawa is such a draw.

“A lot of individuals who end up being homeless in other parts of the region congregate down in the city because the services are all here,” he said.

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A syringe is found on the property of Lord Simcoe Place in Oshawa, Ont., on April 20.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Durham region – to which Oshawa belongs – had set a goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2024. But in March, regional chair John Henry said 266 people in Durham were homeless as of October, 2022 – up from 135 in January, 2021.

Mr. Henry says what is happening on the streets of Oshawa is no different than what you would see in any Canadian city – whether it is Victoria, Calgary, Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay or Toronto. That makes him angry.

“If everyone is having the same problem, if every community in this country is suffering, then it’s a crisis. We’re not solving the problem. We are just not.”

He wants to see Ottawa and the provinces get together with local governments to work on solutions, including more mental-health beds, better addiction treatment and judicial reform to stop repeat offenders from being released onto city streets.

In the meantime, he says Durham is doing all it can within its limited means to help the vulnerable. It is building hundreds of units of affordable housing, sending mental-health nurses out on calls with police and putting social workers in the public library.

Last year, to help the homeless transition to settled housing, it opened 10 subsidized micro apartments downtown. The development quickly attracted complaints from neighbours about litter and frequent police visits. In January, a well-known character in the street community, Ken Chopee, was killed in one of the apartments.

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Under Mayor Dan Carter, Oshawa has hired private security guards to patrol the streets, banned a charitable group from handing out lunches in Memorial Park, and put a high-pitched noise device under a downtown bridge to keep people from congregating and using drugs.

Police say that, as of mid-April, they had received 2,541 calls for service for downtown Oshawa in 2023, up by 151 from the same period last year. They recorded 90 sexual violations and 300 assaults for the city as a whole.

“It’s way out of control,” says John Gray, a city councillor and former mayor. “You can’t just dump everything in Oshawa.”

But some merchants think the answer is more downtown services, not fewer. Jessica Johnson, co-owner of the Brew Wizards board-game café, would like to see the city welcome a safe-injection site where drug users could consume their drugs under supervision rather than risk a deadly overdose.

Brew Wizards keeps safe-drug-use and safe-sex kits on hand and carries naloxone, the drug that reverses overdoses. It doesn’t turn anyone away, unless they are being especially disruptive, and even offers coffees to the needy people who come through the door.

“There are definitely some issues when you have so many services in one small area, but when you treat people with compassion and respect, you don’t have as many problems,” Ms. Johnson said.

She says she walks to work herself and never has any trouble. There are lots of good things happening downtown, including live music at the revived Biltmore Theatre and great meals at the Berry Hill Food Co.

“I love downtown Oshawa. It’s vibrant, it’s interesting, it’s fun.”

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Ms. Malachowski wonders whether the current model of piling service upon service, all in one place, makes sense.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Malachowski, of Lord Simcoe Place, agrees Oshawa should treat its most vulnerable with compassion. She spent a decade working with people experiencing mental illness and did graduate work in public health, so she sympathizes with those who roam the streets outside Lord Simcoe – many of whom are the victims rather than the perpetrators of crime.

She wonders, however, whether the current model of piling service upon service, all in one place, makes sense. In a recent e-mail to a tenant, copied to the mayor, she said that instead of focusing so much on “harm reduction” – reducing the dangers and harms associated with substance use – authorities should devote resources to such areas as rehabilitation, education and job training.

“We have to raise the bar and provide dignified services, with hope, opportunity and a focus on sustainable longer-term solutions,” she said in the e-mail. “What we are doing is not working.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said that police had recorded 90 sexual violations and 300 assaults this year. It should have made clear that those figures were for Oshawa as a whole, not just the downtown.

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