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LEVY: Liberty Village shelter fuels safety concerns

Tiana Nguyen has been in business for eight years in Liberty Village and had no problem with vandalism until the 100-bed respite shelter opened a block away from her shop last December.

Since then, her charming nail salon has experienced three break-ins.

On March 15, vandals broke the window but didn’t come inside, she told me Tuesday.

The second time — April 10 — they broke two doors and stole about $500 in cash.

On July 4, they broke the shop’s window again but didn’t find any money.

In total — in addition to the stolen money — she has spent nearly $2,500 to replace the window and doors, plus another $1,400 to install security bars.

She said the police told her they know who it is but as far as she’s aware, nothing’s been done yet.

Tiana Nguyen, owner of X-Nail Spa, close to City of Toronto 24-Hour Respite Site in Liberty Village on Tuesday August 6, 2019. Ernest Doroszuk / Toronto Sun

Nguyen said she was approached a few weeks ago by the program manager from St. Felix Centre, which is running the respite shelter, about covering her costs but nothing has been done as of yet.

“I’m a little scared right now,” she said.

Gabriela Gonzalez, the new president of the Liberty Village Residents Association, said the tone of the conversation in the community has changed from “very welcoming” last December to concerns about the increase in community incidents that came with the warmer weather.

She characterized those incidents as bike thefts, break-ins into condo lockers, and a proliferation of needles and other paraphernalia.

“While the community is welcoming and open, no one wants to feel unsafe,” she said.

The low-barrier shelter, which opened last Dec. 22 in a $2.5-million pre-fab structure, is not just wreaking havoc on the surrounding Liberty Village neighbourhood — It’s also costing taxpayers a huge bundle of cash.

According to Shelter, Support and Housing spokesman Peggy Byrne, the shelter’s per diem is $166.55 per night and is costing taxpayers $506,000 per month (or about $6 million a year).

And here I thought Mayor John Tory and the councillor for this area, Joe Cressy, said the city had no money.

The 100 residents all sleep dormitory style.

Byrne notes for the $166.55 per diem, the residents — 75% male, 25% female and some identifying as gender non-binary — get three meals a day, plus snacks, and soup in the evening.

They also have access to computers, the Internet and programming like “self-care” and other activities.

When I toured the area with videographer Ernest Doroszuk Tuesday, many residents were sleeping on benches, stone walls, wandering the neighbourhood or sitting outside in a fenced-in area that doubles as the shelter’s back patio.

Byrne added that the shelter has harm reduction policies.

Antonio Sousa, outside of the City of Toronto 24-Hour Respite Site in Liberty Village on Tuesday August 6, 2019. Ernest Doroszuk / Toronto Sun

A gentleman we encountered near the shelter — who has his leg bandaged and suffers from diabetes — said he sees at least one EMS vehicle at the shelter daily.

Antonio Sousa, 62, also told us he was kicked out for a month about a week ago for saying “here kitty, kitty” to one of the female workers.

He said he’s sleeping on a park bench beside Lamport Stadium.

St. Felix executive director Brian Harris did not respond to two emails for comment on the rise in vandalism and other issues that have made residents feel unsafe in recent months.

I’m not surprised.

Harris was extremely testy towards me when I tried to tour the shelter before it opened last Dec. 22.

He accused me of misrepresenting the work of St. Felix and — wrongly — of posting videos showing the lawlessness outside their Augusta Ave. shelter.

(The videos were in fact created by residents of that neighbourhood.)

Gonzalez said Cressy has committed to increasing the number of community safety team members and the areas they cover.

She said a community liaison committee is meeting Wednesday to discuss resident and business concerns.

Cressy has written two letters to residents — one preaching about the need for respite shelters, the most recent referring to increased police patrols and a program called Fresh Start to pick up needle and drug paraphernalia.

But as I saw during my visit Tuesday, the community safety officers — dressed in their neon shirts — look like they’re in their late teens and seemed to spend their time schmoozing with the residents.

slevy@postmedia.com

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