Skip to main content

Melda Montaque, mother of 15-year-old Jarvis Montaque, has been trying to leave her housing project after her son's shooting death in February. She complains the project is in bad repair, that floodlights and security cameras had conked out the night of the murder. August 14 2013.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The recent shooting deaths of two teenagers in one of Canada's most crime-ridden neighbourhoods marked the fifth and sixth homicides of boys in Toronto since January, and there have been arrests in only one of those cases.

In each slaying, questions have been raised about whether the boys were mistaken for other targets, in areas of the city known for gang, drug and gun violence. Few witnesses have come forward, a common occurrence in places ruled by fear. With five of the slayings on or near public housing, these communities are also looking hard at another factor – whether the housing authority's broken infrastructure is playing a part in the violence and law enforcement's inability to apprehend those behind it.

Facing a repair backlog of $750-million and growing, the head of Toronto Community Housing Corp. even went so far this month as to offer repairs and renovations to residents of a housing project who came forward with tips for police.

In the fatal shootings of O'She Doyles-Whyte, 16, and Kwame Duodu, 15, in Toronto's north end, broken and vandalized surveillance cameras are being blamed in part for the difficulty in identifying the culprits or potential witnesses. The TCHC says vandalism of the camera at the scene was recent (it was spray-painted black), but that it has no idea how long the other cameras that police found not functioning had been disabled.

In the case of Jarvis Montaque, a 15-year-old who was shot outside his housing project unit earlier this year, broken infrastructure was also a key issue.

His mother blames the disrepair of her housing complex on Jamestown Crescent – called Doomstown by some – for abetting in the crime. A floodlight above her townhouse had burned out days before the shooting, she says, and no one heeded her family's call for its immediate repair.

"Everybody knows a light goes out, something is going to go down," Melda Montaque says. "They fixed the light the day after my son died …"

Around 11 p.m. on Feb. 17, her son stepped outside the family home. Minutes later, a gunman appeared and shot him dead. Police say Jarvis was a law-abiding young man, but so far no witnesses have come forward.

"People see things around here," says Ms. Montaque, insisting that someone must know something. But she knows all too well the code of silence that might as well be built into the brickwork.

The tense relationship between the residents of social housing and police was cast into the spotlight this month when the Toronto Community Housing Corp. announced the awarding of $150,000 in extra building upgrades for Swansea Mews, a west-end housing project where residents provided police information that led to arrests in a recent homicide.

"I want to put the message out to all my residents that you've got to come together as a community in order to eradicate and minimize criminal activity," TCHC president Eugene Jones recently told The Globe's Marcus Gee. He added that while many TCHC residents "don't want to be labelled as a snitch," he hopes topping up repair funds for informants' communities "may encourage them to go out there and start doing it right now."

Meanwhile, the organization faces a huge bill for overdue capital repairs. The backlog, the TCHC says in a statement, "is expected to exceed $1-billion by 2015 if no new sources of funding are found."

Not everyone is on board with Swansea Mews's "reward," which may include building better fences, laundry facilities – even some extra security cameras. Some critics wonder whether TCHC residents reluctant to approach police in other communities will see their neighbourhoods decay further. "If people – for understandable reasons – didn't trust the police … then such a policy would disadvantage them," says Anthony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto. "This doesn't seem like a sensible policy."

Some TCHC residents say they are taking their own initiative to step up security, but they complain of hitting brick walls. This spring, after a woman's throat was slit at 220 Oak St., a high-rise just outside of Regent Park, Miguel Avila-Velarde started a petition to install security cameras on every floor.

"From a distance they call me names, they call me a rat," says Mr. Avila-Velarde, complaining of a small criminal element opposed to his plan. But while scores of his fellow residents have signed his petition, housing officials have written back to say the cost is excessive, running beyond $200,000 for the building itself, perhaps costing "tens of millions" if the proposal leads the TCHC's other 350-odd properties to seek more cameras, too.

But surveillance isn't always a solution to the violence ingrained in some TCHC communities. The TCHC says it has 39 security cameras in Jamestown Crescent, yet not one of them captured a telltale image of Jarvis Montaque's killer. "I'm not going to sugarcoat it, people have to come forward," says Gary Giroux, a veteran homicide detective who has investigated several fatal shootings in the complex.

Speaking from beneath a broken kitchen window in her townhouse, Ms. Montaque says "Doomstown" is beyond redemption. "Tear it down. Tear it down. There's too much blood."

The frustrations have piled up with the moving boxes stacked in the living room. She wants to transfer her family to a better complex, but while crime victims are considered priority cases, there are 12,000 households overall on the waiting list.

No move is imminent, and Ms. Montaque says she confronts the memory of Jarvis bleeding to death outside every time she opens her door.

"The guy who killed him is going around free with no cares; I'm the one in the prison."