Discarded needles and other drug paraphernalia litter the wheelchair access ramp to St. Michael’s Choir School. Photo courtesy Parent Safety Group

Choir school navigates shelter issues

By 
  • June 8, 2022

Efforts to move the Bond Place emergency shelter located roughly 30 metres from the St. Michael’s Choir School — futile so far — have left concerned parent Jennifer Franssen Keenan demoralized and on the verge of despair.

The shelter took over the Bond Place Hotel in August 2020 to house the homeless during the pandemic, and parents at the prestigious downtown Toronto school say the shelter, which includes a safe injection site, have created substantial safety issues for children attending the Grade 3 to 12 school ever since.

Franssen is a member of the Parent Safety Group, which launched after the shelter opened. Parents say their kids have witnessed drug deals, drug injection, assault and lewd acts on the steps of the school. Custodians are removing used needles, condoms and other concerning items daily.

“We’ve seen human feces, public sex, erratic behaviour and everything else that comes along with serious drug use,” said Franssen Keenan, whose son is in Grade 7. “We see it every single day, transactions for illegal drugs on Bond Street right there every day in the path of school children. It’s just such a dangerous situation. I’d say all the parents have trouble believing that this isn’t immediately recognized as too great a risk.”

In 2020 the parents started a petition calling for the emergency shelter to be moved. It has close to 2,000 signatures and includes comments from concerned staff, parents and community members. Parents have been lobbying politicians at different levels, including city council, school trustees and the provincial government. 

Parents note there are four other consumption sites less than 500 metres from the school. Franssen Keenan also wrote to outgoing Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliot to express concerns that the Bond Place site violates provincial guidelines that call for close proximity to schools and other consumption sites to be taken into consideration. The program, however, was established by the federal government and therefore bypassed provincial guidelines. Adding to the issue is the federal government is entertaining the potential purchase of Bond Place as a permanent shelter.

Jim Hughes is former president of Campaign Life Coalition whose office has been in the area for 40 years, until it recently relocated to Hamilton, Ont. Campaign Life had to manage the many challenges that come along with being near street-entrenched populations.

The difficulty of this situation with the choir school is that it involves two vulnerable communities, said Hughes. There is a Catholic/Christian duty to support those in need as well as a duty to ensure a safe learning environment for students.

“Obviously you have to support people in need, but as a parent or teacher they also have responsibilities for the safety of the students,” said Hughes. “People should work very hard to make whatever changes necessary to ensure the proper safety and protection of the students. It’s terrible that all these things happen nowadays but they do.”

The school board has implemented a secured or card access system to monitor entry into its buildings and to prevent unauthorized individuals from having access and the school hired an extra security guard.

“We recognize that some of the reported incidents are concerning. For this reason, TCDSB works closely with our partners at the City of Toronto and the Toronto Police Service to address any concerns that could potentially affect the safety of staff and students at the school,” wrote the TCDSB in a statement.

David Reycraft, director of housing services at Dixon Hall, which runs the Bond Place, says navigating challenges of running a shelter near a school has been ongoing. The group has worked with the homeless community for decades and those living in poverty and received plenty of support from the faith community. A community liaison committee meets regularly to address community needs and provide a platform to voice concerns.

The city has spoken about the hotel shelters as temporary programs but that does not mean that will be the case of for all of them, says Reycraft, who is also unsure if Bond Place will be made permanent. The core issue, he says, is the city’s housing crisis.

“It is a complicated reality particularly when we’re talking about the proximity to schools and the faith community,” said Reycraft. “I think that we’ve come to a sort of common understanding and in some ways things have gotten better.”

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