The spiky trajectory of the pandemic led to an emergency shelter at the Tom Brown Arena in mid-January, where some 70 homeless people crashed into cots neatly spaced on the warm ice cushion.
Outside, Hintonburg slept restlessly.
Residents in the Bayview/Scott Street neighborhood soon experienced open drug use, discarded syringes, old crack pipes and stray liquor bottles. There was nighttime screaming, late comings and goings, the strange person sleeping on the sidewalk, the sighting of a naked man on a couch, people who were clearly mentally confused.
“Every day got worse and worse,” said Cheryl Parrott, a longtime member of the Hintonburg Community Association with, at home, front row to Tom Brown.
“The problems are increasing every day. There was great concern in the community. Some people get completely out of hand.”
For most of the pandemic, Tom Brown was a daytime respite center for needy residents to get a meal, take a hot shower, find companionship and support, get help with vaccinations and medical care.
But in mid-January, a COVID outbreak in the city’s regular shelter system forced downtown customers to disperse and seek temporary help elsewhere. The town settled on Tom Brown, fairly central and right on the LRT system. Out came the cots.
“It’s an emergency measure in the middle of an emergency,” Kitchissippi Coun. said Jeff Leiper. “We didn’t have a script on how to handle a pandemic in our shelters.”
While some of the early issues have been addressed – waste and needles are now collected on a regular basis – there is still suspicion that an immediate shelter for the homeless is being built on the edge of a neighborhood which, along with a resurgent sense of renewal, is has its own social problems.
Leiper and others say there has been a noticeable increase in the number of reported crimes, such as burglary, theft and property damage.
Just ask “Just Gerry.” Another resident on Tom Brown’s doorstep woke up one morning in late April to find that his $4,000 electric motorcycle had been stolen. Worse, he found that the thief had entered his apartment, wandering around, only to grab his wallet and phone.
“He came right next to me, in my sleep.” Gerry checked his security camera. The thief arrived at the property at 5:17 a.m., grabbed the bike and returned 10 minutes later to enter his apartment. (Gerry had come home soaking wet the night before and, in his haste to take off his helmet and sodden clothes, had left the key in the door lock.)
Gerry said he recognized the thief as a shelter client. He recounted how his neighbor’s van was broken into and how the neighbor’s wallet was brutally removed from a back deck with her just a few steps away.
‘It’s not a shelter. It’s an arena,” the 62-year-old said. “That couple has to go.” He survived on a $1,200-a-month disability check and said it took him 40 months to save enough to buy the electric vehicle, which has not been recovered.
The city is doing what it can. There are daily patrols to collect needles or drug equipment, a private security company makes regular outside rounds and the police have been asked to keep an extra eye.
There will be lighting along the way. The city had set itself the goal of closing the night shelter at the end of April, but that was extended until May 31. Leiper said this week that goal seems achievable, as Tom Brown has already stopped accepting new referrals.
The day care center is expected to remain open until late summer, when operations will move to a building on Catherine Street.
At some point, Tom Brown gets his ice cap back.
It speaks well of Hintonburg to recognize how well the respite center (opened November 2020) was received, if not embraced. Area groups were quick to donate food, volunteers came forward, and area stores like Giant Tiger were the source of regular donations.
But the nighttime crowd, Parrott notes, is a different population.
“There’s a lot of compassion for these people, but it’s terrifying for the neighbors when you have someone losing control, yelling and yelling, and even, we heard one night, lunging at people.”
(If nothing else, feel what the ByWard Market and Lowertown have endured for 40 years — neighbors volunteered to be vigilant social workers about the city’s most troubled people.)
There are undoubtedly lessons here about the pitfalls of setting up an emergency shelter in the middle of an unsuspecting urban district. And a concern — given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic — whether Tom Brown’s ice pillow will be needed again.
“There’s an unease about whether this will ever end,” Parrott said.
To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email [email protected]