The fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jarvis Montaque on a darkened laneway outside his home has brought the issue of public-housing safety into the spotlight, prompting Toronto Community Housing Corp. head Gene Jones to say he can't be responsible for fixing every broken light, nor guarantee the properties are safe.
Mr. Jones's first public comments since the third shooting death of a 15-year-old in public housing in a month came as Police Chief Bill Blair said the shootings don't necessarily indicate a trend, and as city council prepares to debate the issue.
The agencies involved have pledged to work together to try to stop the violence, specific answers appeared in short supply Tuesday, with even the mayor saying he didn't know what more could be done.
Mr. Jones, TCHC's chief executive officer, met on Tuesday evening with reporters who raised questions about whether the light Jarvis and his friends were standing under Sunday night was broken, allowing the shooter to approach in the dark.
Mr. Jones offered a blunt assessment when he was asked if he could guarantee TCHC properties are safe.
"No, there's no neighbourhood that's safe," he said. "Why would I say something stupid like that?"
Questioned about TCHC's responsibility to repair the light – which was affixed to the block of townhouses – he said, "I cannot be responsible in making sure every light is on when it's supposed to be on. I can't be responsible for every camera working when it's supposed to be working, okay?"
He said his organization is angry the shootings have occurred and is doing all it can, but can't stop the violence on its own.
"Don't just keep blaming TCHC to fix everything. We're not the fixers," he said. "Social housing is what we're supposed to provide. Now we've got to provide social activities for our youth."
While the shootings could, at first glance, appear to be an epidemic, Chief Blair – always cautious about short-term crime patterns – was less certain.
"Each of these cases are individual tragedies, and they don't necessarily indicate a trend," he said in an interview Tuesday.
"But at the same time we are very concerned about the level of violence we're seeing, and about the propensity of young people to resort to violence to resolve disputes. It appears that some young people have been desensitized to extreme violence."
And the other component of the grief, Chief Blair and other police leaders agree, is the ready access to illegal guns, most of which are smuggled in from the United States.
The point was underlined at a press conference Tuesday where police, friends and Jarvis's family appealed for public help in solving his murder.
The motive for Jarvis's execution-style killing in Rexdale is unknown but he looks to have been targeted – felled at short distance by a single bullet to the chest – Detective Sergeant Gary Giroux of the homicide squad said.
Jarvis had never had a run-in with the law, he added. Nor had any of the friends he was with that night.
Eight detectives have been assigned to the case, and large quantities of security-camera videotape are under scrutiny. "But witness participation is going to be absolutely paramount," Det. Sgt. Giroux said, and without it the investigation won't progress.
The suspect has been described as a young black male, clad in dark clothing.
Jarvis's death has struck a major nerve in the city.
So far this year, Toronto has witnessed eight homicides and four of the victims were teenagers – three of them aged 15, all living in TCHC buildings, which house just 6 per cent of the city's residents.
In addition, there was the Jan. 23 death of nine-year-old Kesean Williams in Brampton, just west of Toronto, killed at home by a bullet that pierced his living-room window.
Lauded as a quiet, diligent boy who always stayed out of trouble, Jarvis had been watching a basketball game on television when he and some friends stepped outside his home on Jamestown Crescent for a cigarette shortly before 11 p.m.
He was a Grade 10 student at Father Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School, and had been in Canada for less than two years after arriving from Jamaica, where he is to be buried this weekend, survived by his parents and 10 sisters.
A family statement described him as a kind, loving child, fond of music and dancing, and a regular churchgoer.
"People in public housing are vulnerable communities," Chief Blair said. "Not only are individual lives lost, but communities lose their sense of safety. I never lose hope, and we've made progress over the past several years, but there still is work to do."
He said police are working very closely with public housing, but it's not just an issue of housing, nor policing.
"It's an issue for the entire community – schools, community centres, youth workers, families – all of us who have an interest in the safety of those kids have to work together."
On Saturday, the Abundant Life Assembly Church will hold a memorial for the boy, Pastor Al Bowen said at the news conference.
A trust fund has also been set up.