Just days before the fatal shooting of an innocent bystander in Leslieville, some neighbours say they pleaded with their local community health centre to do something about the increased criminal activity they’d observed there in recent months.
Sadly, it was too little, too late.
Last Friday afternoon, a gun fight broke out between three males outside the South Riverdale Community Health Centre (SRCHC), at Queen Street East and Carlaw Avenue.
Karolina Huebner-Makurat, a 44-year-old married mother of two, was caught in the crossfire and was fatally shot.
Just over a week earlier, on June 26, Andrea Nickel, a long-time member of a residents group that represents people living on Heward and Pape avenues, joined several of her neighbours at SRCHC for an emergency meeting where they outlined their concerns about escalating criminal and other concerning activity around the centre.
She said that their key issues included an increase in visible drug use and drug paraphernalia, aggressive behaviour and fighting, overdoses, and open drug selling that has “increased exponentially.” Nickel said from May 26 to July 11, neighbours in the area documented 280 instances on a Google form.
“Regular visitors to the centre are feeling unsafe so are those who use the supervised injection site,” she said, adding people in the community have noticed that a lot of the issues are concentrated in the green space next to the centre, the rear parking lot, the Heward-Carlaw laneway, and in front of the facility on Queen Street East.
Community members met for a second time with SRCHC on July 4 to further discuss the situation and push for immediate steps to address it.
“Everything is always talk. There’s no immediate action,” said Nickel, who has lived in the neighbourhood for about 15 years.
“There were warning signs, for sure. … It’s really just so unfortunate and tragic that this (fatal shooting) happened. It could have been any of us.”
Nickel said the vast majority of people in the community support harm reduction services, but many worry that this specific site at 955 Queen St. E. may no longer be meeting the needs of those who use the program.
“Does this location still work for what we’re trying to achieve in the neighbourhood,” she said.
Nickel said the residents group is now in the process of setting up a town hall to further discuss immediate and long-term solutions to ensure that “safety and security for the community.” They also want to see a full operational review of the supervised injection site and greater accountability, she said. Details about when and where that meeting will take place have yet to be determined.
‘Not the time to dump on the supervised consumption service’
East-ender Ola Skudlarska was running some errands at Queen and Carlaw at the time of last Friday afternoon’s fatal shooting and witnessed its immediate aftermath.
To help cope with this tragedy, Skudlarska took to social media, but was disturbed to see the amount of anger and vitriol being directed by some towards the vulnerable individuals who use SRCHC’s Consumption and Treatment Service. Open since late 2017, the KeepSIX program offers clients a range of outreach and harm reduction education and supplies, including the supervised consumption of unregulated drugs.
“This is not the time to dump on the supervised consumption service and those who use drugs. … Turning this into an ‘us versus them’ things isn’t helping,” Skudlarska said during a Wednesday morning interview with CP24.com.
“If we had safe supply and decriminalization we wouldn’t have the drug trade in the same way. … If we talk about it and acknowledge what’s happening, at least we can take better care of people.”
Skudlarska, who uses the pronouns they/them, felt compelled to do something to bring together in the community in a spirit of love and inclusiveness during this time of crisis and has been in communication with a number of local individuals and groups about how to do that in a concrete way.
“The best part of the east end is its sense of belonging. It made me really sad to see otherwise,” they said, adding as a past shelter worker some of their clients passed away from an overdose.
“(People who use drugs) are our neighbours too. They’re my community and my friends.”
How centre plans to address safety after shooting
CP24.com reached out to SRCHC and they recommended reviewing the board statement posted on their website. We tried contacting the centre’s board several times, but have not heard back.
In a July 10 statement posted on its website, SRCHC’s board said it is “horrified and saddened” by the gun violence and Huebner-Makurat’s death and “grieve(s) alongside the community, as Board members of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, as community members, and as Torontonians.”
“Our hearts go out to the family of the victim, as we mourn with our neighbours for our shared loss,” the board said.
“We join others in being deeply troubled by this level of violence in our community. This terrible incident took place near our facility and has affected the whole community.”
The statement also outlined a number of actions SRCHC will be taking to address the impacts on the community and its emerging needs following last week’s fatal shooting, notably “accelerating community safety activities, many of which were underway before this tragic event occurred.”
This includes engaging a community safety team, which will be stationed outside the SRCHC from 6 a.m. to midnight for the coming week.
“We have begun discussions with community members about the effectiveness of this approach and will continue to monitor and adapt this initiative,” it said.
The centre said it would also establish a new safe community committee to “enhance and build on the work of Supervised Consumption Services Community Liaison Committee, which meets quarterly and includes community members, the BIA and other stakeholders.”
“We are immediately striking a Board-led committee to work with the local police service, SafeTO representatives and other stakeholders – including local school leaders and residents,” the board said.
“The committee will re-examine how our Consumption and Treatment Services intersect with police and other city divisions. The stakeholders on this committee will 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.”
“The Health Centre will continue to participate in extensive and deep community discussions, town halls, and research over the summer to inform recommendations to the Safe Community Committee, management, and our community partners,” it wrote.
“Our community-led Board will share regular updates about our progress with stakeholders and community members.”
Further, the board said that as one of many partners in the community SRCHC remains committed to the delivery of multi-service health care.
“We hold responsibility to deliver these services as a beacon in a healthy and safe community. From essential health care and diabetes education to pregnancy and mental health programs to harm reduction services, we will continue to work with residents and partner organizations to deliver services in a way that prioritizes the health and safety of clients, staff and community,” it said.
CP24.com also reached out to Queen Street East Presbyterian Church, which owns the green space directly west of the community health centre to weigh in, but we have not heard back.
Local politicians weigh in
East-end Coun. Paula Fletcher said she empathizes with the concerned neighbours, but finds herself in a difficult position as SRCHC is an independently-operated organization, not a City of Toronto facility. Funding for the centre and its programs comes from the province.
“If I had the ability, I’d bring in a team of staff and I’d be contacting the top officials,” she told CP24.com earlier this week.
“I think there needs to be an operational review, but it’s not mine to do. … If the community health centre wants my help in any way I’m happy to help, but it’s not a city facility and I have not been asked to assist.”
Fletcher said she has received several calls and messages from upsets constituents over the last six or so months about an escalation of safety issues around SRCHC.
“This is an ongoing problem and people aren’t feeling heard,” she said, adding she’s doing her best to urge the centre to “deal with the community in a better way and a different way.”
For now, Fletcher said her focus is on helping people in the community navigate this tragedy.
Local MPP Peter Tabuns told CP24.com that he appreciates that people are upset and angry by what has happened, especially since Toronto-Danforth has seen a number of innocent bystanders killed by gun violence in recent years.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that people are scared. They are anxious and they’re trying to sort it out,” he told CP24.com, adding the immediate focus is figuring out how to make sure everyone in the community feels safe.
“I don’t blame people for feeling fearful and angry. … (Karolina’s) death has really shaken up the community.”
Tabuns said he’s spoken with Supt. Kim O’Toole, the head of the local police division, which has increased the presence of officers in the area.
“I’m glad that the police have stepped up their patrols and their visibility,” he said, adding the creation of a new community safety team is a good thing.
“People deserve a sense that they’re a high priority.”
In the longer term, the local MPP said it’s no secret that there’s a large population of intravenous drug users in the city’s east end and there needs to be better ways to deal with the social demands and needs of those vulnerable individuals, while also taking into consideration the safety of those who live and work nearby.
“It’s a substantial problem. … a complex and complicated conversation,” he said, noting up to half of SRCHC’s clients are Indigenous.
Tabuns said no one in the community wants to see open drug use return to local parks and playgrounds. People want a safe place in the east end for those who use drugs to consume their substances and get the healthcare they need and deserve, he said.
“Most of the clients live in the community so it’s a community problem,” said Tabuns, who met with some neighbours on Tuesday evening to discuss their concerns about the recent increase in questionable activity near the centre.
In terms of rising rates of criminality in South Riverdale, Toronto police’s Major Crime Indicators Dashboard showed that assaults, which top the list of incidents, are up by 19 per cent year to date compared to 2022. This data, however, cannot be specifically attributed to a certain address or location, police said.
A vigil to remember Karolina, who was known as Caroline by those she knew and loved, is set to take place on Monday from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Jimmie Simpson Park, 872 Queen St. E.
On Thursday morning, Toronto police announced the arrest of one of the three male suspects allegedly involved in this fatal shooting.
Damian Hudson, 32, of Toronto, is facing a second-degree murder charge.
Earlier this week, Toronto police told CP24.com that they would not be provide any information about the “nature of the dispute or motivation,” noting that those details would be “presented in court.”
Anyone with any information about this homicide is asked to contact Toronto police or Crime Stoppers anonymously.