The 519: A Toronto community centre in the crossfire
Amid turmoil and tragedy in Toronto's Gay Village, the historic icon is being accused of failing to serve those who need it most
For 40 years, marginalized Torontonians have flocked to the three-storey brick building known as the 519, after the address it sits at on Church Street in the city's core. It's best known for services aimed at lesbians, gay men, bisexual, transgender and other queer people, but as early as 1977, its mandate pledged services for street people, too.
It's a community centre, but also a downtown icon and a beacon throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Its daily schedule is stacked with 12-step meetings and improv workshops, plus family playtime, prayer groups, legal clinics and more.
"In many ways, it was groundbreaking," says Lynda Cheng of the gathering spot in the heart of the Church-Wellesley Village, where she worked for six years. "It was really kind of at the frontier of creating safe spaces and good programs for LGBTQ communities."
Much has changed, though, in the four decades since a group of residents blocked the demolition of a condemned building and made it public space. In 2010, the tarps came off a nine-year renovation that added glassy, modern touches to the 519 and increased event space by 45 per cent. Meanwhile, the surrounding neighbourhood has experienced the same dramatic gentrification as the rest of downtown Toronto.
Now, Ms. Cheng and two other former 519 employees, Brian De Matos and Monica Forrester, believe current staff have forgotten the centre's historical, political mission. In December, they began circulating a petition demanding the resignation of the centre's executive director of 10 years, Maura Lawless. With more than 200 signatures, it alleges that she is "succeeding in pushing out the most marginalized people in the community … in favour of turning the 519 into an exclusive club for donors."
"Over time, it just became a place that you just didn't feel so welcomed any more," said Ms. Cheng, who was laid off in 2012.
In an interview, Ms. Lawless said the petition isn't "based on truth." She's being supported by the volunteer board of directors, which points to the centre's constant activity as proof of a job well done. In an e-mail, board chair David Morris and vice-chair Gwen Benaway said that program decisions, including those that some people might not like, aren't made by Ms. Lawless alone.
She is, however, the public face of an organization that has undergone considerable change. In 2007, when Ms. Lawless left her position as Toronto's manager of hostel operations, or homeless shelters, the 519's program spending was under $1-million. In 2016, it was $5.5-million. About $730,000 of that comes from various government grants, but most of it is the result of a serious increase in fundraising.
That has included splashy events that attract wealthy donors, such as the annual gala, which raised $500,000 in 2016, with VIP tables costing up to $25,000. It's the kind of event that the petitioners point to when they say the 519 has strayed far from its roots.
The group's two main allegations are that the 519 is prejudiced against transgender people, specifically transgender women, as well as the poor and homeless. Two recent controversies are the main catalysts.
One is the continuing issue of More Moss Park, a proposal to have the 519 lead a redevelopment of the John Innes Community Centre at Queen Street East and Sherbourne Street. About $30-million of the project would be funded by an anonymous benefactor who approached Ms. Lawless in 2013 with an idea for an LGBTQ-focused sports and recreation centre. Anti-poverty activists say the proposed redevelopment would displace the low-income and homeless people who use John Innes now.
The other is the death of 519 client Alloura Wells, a biracial, transgender homeless woman who disappeared last July. The woman who found Ms. Wells's body informed the 519 as well as police, but staff didn't contact police to confirm that the tip was true, nor get in touch with more trans-focused organizations. Ms. Wells's friends say this is one reason her body wasn't identified for months.
In mid-December, Ms. Lawless and Mr. Morris released a public apology for the centre's "mishandling of information" in the Wells case and announced a task force to do a "needs assessment" of the city's transgender communities.
"Obviously, the circumstances surrounding Alloura Wells were incredibly tragic," Ms. Lawless said in an interview. "We still maintain it was the responsibility of the Toronto police to release that information publicly."
Police have promised a review of missing-persons protocol in light of a number of cases that have the Village reeling, particularly the January arrest of Bruce McArthur for the murders of multiple men, many known in the Village and some of whom had been missing for years. In mid-February, the 519 co-hosted a vigil in honour of the victims, including Dean Lisowick, who sometimes panhandled on Church.
The backdrop to all this is that gentrification has been an issue that historically LGBTQ neighbourhoods, or "gaybourhoods," have grappled with across North America, says Petra Doan, editor of Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Space. An urban-planning professor at Florida State University, she said a place that draws marginalized people to no-longer marginalized neighbourhoods can be seen as a problem.
"There can be tension in the gaybourhood between people who perhaps can't afford to live in the gaybourhood but still need a safe place to come and experiment with their sexuality or their gender expression and so they're attracted to these places," she said.
The petitioners allege that the 519 has long contributed to such tension. Ms. Forrester, who is transgender, was an outreach worker from the late 1990s until 2008, the year a local homeowners group began complaining about transgender sex workers on Jarvis Street. She said Ms. Lawless asked her to break up fights and contain sex workers within a specific area.
"I spoke out and said that's not my position. I'm not policing women in my community," Ms. Forrester said. She left the centre soon after.
Former employees say that couches and soft seating were removed from the 519's lobby to discourage lingering. They include social worker Morgan Page, who is transgender and took two stress leaves during her four years at the centre, which ended in 2014. She said she was often told to "remove people that were homeless or who appeared to be homeless" from the lobby.
The petition also states that the centre "maintains a harsh barring policy, barring some of the most vulnerable members of the community, sometimes on a whim, with no clear process for appeal." Leroi Newbold of Black Lives Matter, which has signed the petition, said this "ban list" is largely made up of mentally ill or developmentally disabled racialized people.
Staff dispute all of these allegations. In an e-mail, communications manager Soofia Mahmood wrote that Ms. Forrester was directed to "talk with people about the impact of their behaviour and how our staff could support them." Soft seating was removed for "hygienic reasons," she wrote, and staff have never been told to kick people out for just hanging around.
Clients are occasionally asked to leave the centre for a period of time after an outburst or violence, but Ms. Lawless said she has never authorized a lifetime ban. "We fully know and understand the implications and the decisions of restricting service and we do it organizationally very rarely," she said.
Members of the public are welcome to attend board meetings of the city-funded organization and the petitioners have asked to present their petition at the one scheduled for Monday. They were advised that non-members aren't permitted to present or request changes to an agenda.
Instead, the board said the 519 will be "engaging an independent party to conduct a fact-finding review" of the concerns in the petition and will release details of what that process will look like "in the next couple of weeks."
Mr. De Matos says that even without an opportunity to speak, petition signatories will attend Monday evening's board meeting to observe.