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Residents of Toronto public housing four times more likely to be murder victims

A group of students walk in front of yellow police tape after their school was reopened following a shooting at the corner of Birchmount Rd., and Bay Mills Blvd.

Fernando Morales for The Globe and Mail/fernando morales The Globe and Mail

Often dispiriting, life in Toronto public housing can also be perilous: A tenant is at least four times as likely to be murdered as someone living elsewhere in the GTA, statistics suggest.

When 15-year-old Andrew Naidoo was fatally shot this week in the courtyard of the battered, low-rise public housing complex that was his home in northwest Toronto, the tragedy garnered headlines chiefly because of his age.

Few however - certainly not the police - were surprised about where the city's 23rd homicide of the year took place. Data analyzed by The Globe and Mail, including months of security reports obtained through a freedom of information request, show that among the 164,000 Toronto Community Housing Corporation tenants, the likelihood of falling victim to violent crime in general, and murder in particular, far exceeds that of the rest of the city's population.

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These revelations come in the wake of the Ford administration's dissolution of the TCHC board after it was discovered this February that its staff had long been expensing items such as spas and exorbitant dinners to the city. Later this month, the organization will be reconfigured. The new staff may bring new priorities, and, it is hoped, a fresh look at how to deal with the long-standing problem of violence in its communities.

Toronto's subsidized housing is offered to anyone who applies (though there is currently a sizable waiting list). TCHC describes their tenants as "seniors and youth, parents and children, and people of all abilities, speaking over 70 languages." The average household income, at $19,795, is well below that of the GTA average ($69,125). The rent is typically geared to income, but the low cost is arguably offset by the danger inherent in public housing.

A TCHC report from August, 2010, found that while close to 90 per cent of reported incidents on its scattered properties over the previous few years were non-violent and non-criminal - such as loitering and causing a disturbance - the murder rate remained disturbingly high.

From 2007 to 2009, there were 40 killings on TCHC premises. City-wide during those same three years, the tally was 218, meaning that, on average, more than 18 per cent of killings occurred on TCHC property, whose population represented less than seven per cent of Toronto at large.

Through the prism of murder rates per 100,000 people, the disparity is even more striking: A person living in Toronto public housing during those three years was four to five times more likely to be a homicide victim than someone living anywhere else in the Greater Toronto Area. For at-risk segments of that TCHC population, such as gang members and associates, the hazards are greater still.

Safety issues extend far beyond homicide. Arson accounts for 20 per cent of fires on TCHC property (second only to unattended cooking), and TCHC reports obtained through an FOI brim with reportage describing the obstacles faced by ordinary people struggling to live ordinary lives: After a murder on Birchmount Road, tenants in a building on lockdown couldn't pick their children up from the school bus; violence at 4301 Kingston Rd. left "a large amount of what appeared to be blood" on the walls and floor; at 460 Jarvis St., a woman was raped in an elevator lobby.

TCHC's security apparatus, meanwhile, has shrunk. In 2003, it was decided to reduce the number of community patrol officers from about 200 to roughly 80. Today there are 91, periodically augmented by regular police, such as the anti-violence TAVIS teams that target housing trouble spots, usually to the relief of most of the people who live there.

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Every sociologist knows that poverty breeds crime, as evidenced by the ever-present threats from Toronto's entrenched gang culture, which flourishes in and around low-income housing, and takes advantage of residents such as the mentally challenged or non-native speakers, who may be unable to defend themselves. The high crime rates are exacerbated by the conditions present around public-housing projects, too: Design flaws in the architecture and fewer community patrol officers than were in place 10 years ago contribute too.

Whether the departed patrol staff get replaced may be addressed after a new TCHC board takes shape, likely after approval at a June 14 city council meeting. In the meantime, Ford spokesman Mark Towhey said, "the safety and security of everyone in Toronto is always a top priority and the mayor expects TCHC will work closely with the police and the community to reduce crime in its neighbourhoods wherever possible."

More crime, fewer patrols

Few police officers know Toronto's meanest streets and walkways better than Constable Scott Mills, the city's long-time Crime Stoppers officer for schools and now the Toronto Police Service's social-media officer.

"I'm in the [poor]neighbourhoods quite regularly and there are great people who live in them, a lot of kids who want to succeed and do succeed," he said. "But if you look at an overlay of crime and gangs on a map, you will see that the vast majority of our violent crimes happen in or near community-housing locations. I have maps of where the gangs are, they're all in those spots, and they have a strong hold on a lot of the good people, who have good information they want to give to the police but are too scared to do so."

TCHC director of community safety Terry Skelton did not return multiple requests for comment over several weeks, and a Globe request to accompany community patrol officers on their rounds was turned down.

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Yet while the statistics since the 2010 report are incomplete, there is scant doubt the imbalance persists. Between January and July of 2010, there were six murders in TCHC communities, and in January of this year alone there were three, one at a Scarborough address on Birchmount Road that witnessed an earlier murder in 2008.

The numbers, moreover, exclude the clusters of murders and other crimes that occur close to but not on TCHC properties, many of which are located in deprived areas.

On or off TCHC property, the fear of reprisals for talking to police is real.

"It's hard to get past that, because if you do [help police] the cops probably won't be there when you need them," said a youth who lives near where Andrew Naidoo was killed Sunday night. "So yeah, people get scared."

Since the 2003 decision to reduce community patrol officers from about 200 to roughly 80, the TCHC has also deployed private security contractors at about a dozen sites, chiefly downtown, and a spokesman for the agency said the changes have "streamlined the administration and management structure."

But at least one Toronto family sees things differently.

A 2007 lawsuit brought against TCHC by the Cadougan family claims that the staff cutbacks, which encompassed the closing of security offices, were partly responsible for a 2005 drive-by shooting near Jane and Finch that injured five people and left four-year-old Shaquan Cadougan with a bullet permanently lodged in his body.

Because the lawsuit remains before the courts, TCHC declined comment.

But a former TCHC community patrol officer with more than a decade of experience, who spoke to The Globe and Mail on condition of anonymity, said the current security provisions are inadequate. With fewer officers, he said, the emphasis is on reacting to crimes, rather than thwarting them - a kind of community policing in reverse.

More personnel means more time in individual communities, learning tenants' names, establishing trust and gathering intelligence. Instead, "They're always going in after the fact - trying to deal with the mess afterwards," the former patrol officer said. "There's no prevention."

Mental health, outsiders and the flaws of 'island' design

Mental-health issues remain an enduring issue for the corporation, accounting for hundreds of incidents each year. A 2009 TCHC report cited residents who were "isolated, ignored and shunned by their neighbours and staff; tenants who had committed suicide, who lived in squalor, or whose mental illness prevented them from treating physical ailments; and vulnerable tenants whose units had been taken over by drug dealers and pimps, or became crowded by homeless people."

Over the previous 3 1/2 years[Jan. 2006-Aug. 2009]/note>, more than $1-million in damage had been done to TCHC property by tenants with mental-health difficulties.

But also widely acknowledged is that many problems on TCHC property originate from people who come and go from the often decrepit buildings but don't live there.

A TCHC spokesperson rejected a suggestion that security is lax, maintaining the corporation routinely evicts "people who are engaging in illegal activity or endangering tenants." Beyond law enforcement, TCHC lists crime-prevention measures it takes, such as repairs and improved lighting.

But Mitchell Kosny, interim director of Ryerson's school of urban and regional planning and a former TCHC chair, says it has long been clear that TCHC communities such as Regent Park provide a haven to non-resident criminals.

"The local reconnaissance would say a hell of a lot of the drug and violent crimes that were committed there were really generated from outside the community," Mr. Kosny said. "Ninety-nine per cent of the tenants are like 99 per cent of the population. They're regular, good people."

Part of the problem, he added, is that when communities such as Regent Park were built, they were physically isolated from the rest of the city. "No one in their right mind would build another Regent Park or St. James Town or Jane-Finch because they're islands," he said.

Inaccessible to cars, Regent Park's original, rabbit-warren design not only thwarted swift police response, but also forestalled less intrusive forms of crime prevention - grocery stores, coffee shops, banks.

Ross McLeod, the president of Intelligarde, a security provider, cites amusement parks as an example of crime prevention through design, with heavy foot traffic and few places for troublemakers to hide.

"You don't feel like you're part of an authoritarian, micromanaged police state, but the opportunities for crime are so minimal and the detections are maximal," he said. Stairwells are a particular magnet for miscreants, especially drug dealers.

"You can't confront them, because you don't know how they're going to react," TCHC tenant rep Charmaine Roye says of the strangers who use and sell drugs in her building's stairwell. Nor does she see community patrol officers doing nightly patrols in her building any more.

Revitalization, improved patrols

Today, Regent Park is improving, manifest in the Royal Bank that opened last winter [February 2010]/note> at the base of a new condominium building. But there have been setbacks, too, reminders of the neighbourhood's violent history. Surveillance cameras were not working when two teens were shot dead in Regent Park in October.

TCHC is undertaking other revitalization efforts, including one at Alexandra Park, a maze-like tangle of buildings adjoining downtown Kensington Market, and another in Lawrence Heights. And not a day too soon, said a security guard familiar with Alexandra Park.

"There are places where, if you called 911 for backup, it would be impossible to find you," he said, and he is not alone in his criticism.

Morris Beckford, executive director of Doorsteps Neighbourhood Services in the northwestern corner of the city is part of a loose coalition encompassing community workers, police, and public and private security guards in the Jane and Wilson neighbourhood. The group meets every few weeks to discuss community development and security in the area.

"Anybody knows there's only so much you can do in a high-rise built with limited space," Mr. Beckford said.

"It's more a fault of the city planners who allowed these buildings to be built with limited green space and limited space where more than 10 community members can come together."

Mr. Beckford nonetheless sees some flickers of hope. He's appreciative that police now patrol the neighbourhood in pairs, rather than large groups. Mr. Beckford, who does community work in TCHC buildings, also praises TCHC's community patrol officers, noting "a shift in the way they do business," through more direct engagement with tenants.

That's a change, he says, "very unusual for TCHC."

With files from Celia Donnelly and Rick Cash

Editor's note: Due to an editing error a previous version of this article stated that members of the TCHC had expensed items such as spas and dinners. It should have stated that staff expensed those items.

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