Views / Opinion

Shawn Micallef: Angst in the Annex’s angry triangle

Resistance to a homeless shelter from some Davenport Triangle residents wasn’t just any kind of opposition — it was gold-plated, straight from central casting community villain opposition.

A homeless person sits on the sidewalk in downtown Toronto in early January. The city recently purchased a building on Davenport Rd. to be used as a homeless shelter, meeting with opposition from some residents and support from others.

CHRISTOPHER KATSAROV / The Canadian Press

A homeless person sits on the sidewalk in downtown Toronto in early January. The city recently purchased a building on Davenport Rd. to be used as a homeless shelter, meeting with opposition from some residents and support from others.

Until last week you could be forgiven for not having heard of the Davenport Triangle before. Some neighbourhoods are famous because they’re destinations, while others are known only to those who live there. Most of us probably know the Davenport Triangle better as simply the northeast corner of the Annex, a wedge of land between Dupont St. and Bedford and Davenport Rds. If the Junction can have a triangle, why can’t the Annex?

It seems, though, there’s not enough room for a homeless shelter in this particular triangle, at least according to a group of people calling themselves the Davenport Triangle Residents Association Inc. (DATRA), who brought notoriety to this part of the city last week when they publicly opposed a temporary emergency shelterat 348 Davenport Rd.

It wasn’t just any kind of opposition — it was gold-plated, straight from central casting community villain opposition. “Our general objection is that the Annex has more than its share of ‘social problem’ housing, and it is time for the rest of the city to share the burden,” read their January newsletter. In a later interview, a director of the group said he worried about increased crime and that a homeless person might graffiti his neighbour’s Tesla out of “jealousy.”

This shelter came about quickly, as the city, acting with the support of local Councillor Joe Cressy, identified a former rug store for sale and purchased it for shelter use. Space for new shelters in a city like Toronto, with a red hot real estate market and large parts of it already off limits to shelters, is hard to come by, so when space on an arterial road like Davenport opens up, it’s rare, and this ornery sliver of land already has many uses. Be sure, too, that not everybody there shares DATRA’s views and many nearby residents have welcomed the shelter. Indeed, the formidable Annex Residents Association, perhaps the most powerful of such groups in the city, even supports the shelter.

Designers Walk, a collection of five buildings that house high-end interior design companies, dominates the Davenport Triangle. It’s existed since 1980 and for those not looking for granite counter tops or wainscoting samples, its most interesting feature is the Designers Walk Lane that runs between Dupont and Bedford, a short public alley that is quintessentially big city with an industrial overhead walkway and fire escapes along the way. It’s also where the residential homes back onto and where that quite possibly innocent Tesla can be found, plugged in by a sign that reads, “Jaguar Parking Only.”

Subtler is the dip in both Dupont and Bedford here, just about the only indication that there’s a buried creek under the Davenport Triangle. Indeed, the “Yorkville Reach” of Castle Frank Brook runs directly underneath here before continuing, buried still, through Ramsden Park and down Rosedale Valley Rd. ravine to the Don River. Also subtle, unless you know the history, is that Davenport itself is one of the oldest roads in Toronto as it follows a former Indigenous trail called Gete-Onigaming, or “the old portage,” that ran between the Humber and Don Rivers.

Our own time in this city is so short in comparison to both its natural and human history, yet the list of ways we try to keep other people out of our neighbourhoods is long. Zoning entire swaths of the city for only single-family homes, the so-called “yellow belt” that forces density to cluster elsewhere while banning rooming houses in large parts of the city, also keeps entire economic groups out. Even the very design of the city is hostile to humans without homes, with a variety of techniques available that make it hard, as the British say, to “sleep rough.”

In 2014, the flagship Archambault books and music store in Montreal installed fearsome-looking metal anti-homeless spikes that would prevent people from sitting or lying on low window ledges. “It’s a disgrace,” then-mayor Denis Coderre said at the time. “This is not the kind of society I want to live in, and when I noticed that happened I want to make sure we kick that out.” It was a reaction that drew a lot of praise, and it was the right thing to do.

So was the decision by Mayor John Tory’s executive committee in 2015 to support a men’s shelter proposed for an old motel on Kingston Rd. in Scarborough, despite local opposition. That fight also proves this is not just a downtown issue. Most of the services and shelters may be downtown, but the need for them can be hidden outside the core. Check your local ravine and see who’s living in it.

That Scarborough decision in 2015, and the more than 56,000 people who signed a petition asking the mayor to reverse his opposition and open the armouries this year, along with the public outrage over his refusal to do so for so long, suggest that perhaps the old NIMBY responses to shelters and indifference to homelessness are waning. One can hope, anyway, but none of this is a surprise. The crisis has been building for more than 20 years.

Moving people along, from a bench or ledge, or from an entire neighbourhood like the Davenport Triangle, doesn’t address the complexity of the problem. As for DATRA’s feeling that they’ve already got their share of social problems, a walk through the neighbourhood quickly can disabuse you of that notion.

More than a decade ago, I lived a block away on Dupont, before the latest wave of new restaurants and bars opened up in this desirable part of town that is close to a ravine, the subway and even the city’s most famous castle. There was no doubt it was the big city, but it was pretty gentle even if the “dirty mansion” I lived in, a once-noble single family home carved up into apartments that backed onto the rail corridor, shook each time the trains shunted. Perhaps DATRA would think we were social problems too. It was a good place to live and still had capacity to share the burden then and now.

That Tesla parked in the Davenport Triangle bears special “Green Vehicle” plates that all electric vehicles in Ontario are eligible for. Requesting one suggests a certain kind of conspicuous pride in doing one’s bit for the greater good. Sometimes the greater good means going beyond just buying a luxury automobile, though.

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