The head of a community health centre in Leslieville said they are committed to working with the area residents and business owners to identify local safety concerns and advocate for “real action” after a mother of two from the area was fatally shot just steps away.
Karolina Huebner-Makurat was walking along Queen Street East over the noon hour on July 7 when she was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight between three males near the South Riverdale Community Health Centre (SRCHC) at 955 Queen St. E., near Carlaw Avenue. Huebner-Makurat later died in hospital.
Jason Altenberg, SRCHC’s CEO, said the tragedy has deeply impacted those who work at the centre, who are also “contending with the feelings of fear and loss that have gripped the community.” In a July 25 statement, he said that some of their medical staff were among those who first responded to the shooting and administered emergency measures.
Altenberg also pointed out that the “increased volatility and behaviour issues” seen in the community over the last several months are not isolated to Leslieville, adding that these “troubling shifts in behaviour” are happening across Toronto “as we witness the effects of poverty and homelessness compounded by a deepening mental health crisis and an increasingly toxic drug supply.”
“All this is happening while our justice system, housing and mental health services are overwhelmed by those in need,” he wrote.
“We also know that everyone should feel safe in their neighbourhood and that no one should die on our streets.”
That being said, Altenberg reiterated SRCHC’s determination to “finding solutions and working with our community and government partners to identify actions that will help address these complex and urgent challenges.”
He said so far they’ve retained an “alternative security company” to provide community safety teams trained to support the homeless population as well as those with substance-use addiction or mental health challenges. This move has resulted in an “on-going presence outside of our building, bringing expertise in maintaining public safety in a way that is respectful and supportive of all community members,” Altenberg wrote.
He also said that the centre has recently met with and would continue to connect with local groups that have concerns or ideas for “supporting the health, safety and well-being of our community.”
Altenberg also noted that a new Safer Community Committee, co-chaired by SRCHC and including reps from SafeTO, Toronto Police Services, the Leslieville Business Improvement Area, Queen Street East Presbyterian Church, and local residents, is now in place. This committee will review and report on its findings and issue community safety recommendations within 90 days, he said.
Over the next two weeks, representatives from SRCHC will also be knocking on doors throughout the area to “gather community insights into local safety concerns.” An online form will be available on the centre’s website in the next two weeks.
Further, Altenberg said that SRCHC would “continue to review and adapt our own facilities and procedures to maximize public safety and client wellbeing,” including installing additional security cameras and working with Queen Street East Presbyterian Church to explore physical changes to the small yard just west of the centre that “could help improve community safety in the short and long term.”
In the days following the tragedy, SRCHC’s board of directors issued an online statement that expressed its horror and sadness about the gun violence and outlined a number of “community safety activities” to address its impacts on the community.
Some of those actions include engaging a community safety team, establishing a new safe community committee, and striking a board-led committee to work with the local police service, SafeTO representatives and other stakeholders, including local school leaders and residents, to re-examine how its Consumption and Treatment Services intersect with police and other city divisions and “pursue all opportunities to strengthen coordination between these groups in the interest of public safety.”
The board also vowed to ensure there’s “meaningful community engagement” and “provide frequent news and updates,” while delivering multi-service health care.
This week’s comments by Altenberg come after some people in the community, including local politicians, recently raised concerns about a notable increase over the last few months in criminal activity in the Queen-Carlaw area, and called for steps be taken to address it.
A group of residents from Heward, Pape, and Boston avenues organized a town hall Wednesday night with a goal to give the Leslieville community a “forum to ask questions and demand accountability and action from key stakeholders.”
Representatives from SRCHC and Toronto police, along with area politicians, were expected to speak during the meeting, which got underway inside the gym of Jimmie Simpson Community Recreation Centre at 6 p.m.
Organizer Andrea Nickel said she’s feeling “cautiously optimistic” that meaningful conversations and actions to ensure the safety and security of everyone in the neighbourhood along with the “optimal delivery of services” at SRCHC are and will continue to happen.
“We are a very strong and engaged community that is no longer willing to be brushed off,” the long-time east-end resident told CP24.com on Wednesday afternoon.
“There’s a difference between listening and actually resolving concerns.”
Nickel said the meeting wasn’t a debate about whether or not harm reduction or supervised drug consumption services should be offered in Leslieville.
Instead, she said it’s a question of coming up with a “real plan of action” that includes both immediate and long-term solutions for addressing the illegal activity that has cropped up around the Queen-Carlaw area in recent months.
She also said that it’s “unfair” to solely put the blame on SRCHC for the gun violence that took Huebner-Makurat’s life.
“We need everyone who is accountable to step up,” said Nickel, who is calling for “more funding, more action, and more communication among stakeholders” to solve recent challenges in the community.