Friday, April 17, 1998

Richard Foot

p. A21.

Taking back a neighbourhood

The homeowners of Toronto's Cabbagetown have received a high-court ruling that they are victim of street crime and judges must consider their "revulsion when sentencing neighbourhood toughs."

TORONTO -- It's a half-hour walk from the gleaming bank towers of Bay Street to the gritty core of Cabbagetown.

Cabbagetown is Toronto's original skid road and home to nearly 90 per cent of the city's 1,400 hostel beds for homeless men and half the city's social housing. It averages about one murder every two months. It's a base for nearly half the downtown prostitution plus a good measure of the cocaine trade that comes with it.

Living here among the dealers, the hookers and the homeless is what local police call the toughest, best organized, and most politicized pack of homeowners in Canada.

"Our residents associations are the most vocal, powerful, committed residents you'll find in the country," says Staff Inspector Bill Blair, who polices Cabbagetown and its 70,000 residents with 215 officers.

Some residents live in low-cost housing complexes or high-rise apartments. Others live in more expensive, renovated homes -- pockets of charming red-brick Victorian houses where gentrification began in the late 1970s.

For the last five years, vocal members of a half-dozen residents groups have attacked street crime and urban disorder in their neighbourhood as if they were fighting a war. Their biggest victory came in January, when the Ontario General Court upheld their right - and that of all "neighbourhoods" - to record the community's fears and frustrations during sentencing hearings of convicted criminals.

For nearly four years, residents have been working with Crown attorneys, going to court and convincing judges to hand out stiffer sentences to notorious hookers and drug dealers as part of the community witness program.

The program was challenged in January by a prostitute's lawyers. But the appeal was thrown out. Even though the Criminal Code doesn't consider residents formal victims of street offences, the decision confirmed residents' right to testify about the general effects of crime on their community.

The court also upheld the right of provincial courts to ban hookers and drug dealers from a neighbourhood.

Sue Collis, who works with the labour-sponsored Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, says the program is unjust. "It's the championing of the interests of wealthy property owners by the courts, at the expense of the poor," she says.

But Lisa Stephens of the Central Cabbagetown Residents' Association and her fellow street soldiers call the January court ruling a triumph. "We have found a way to remove the criminals from our streets and from our lives," she says. "We want to make it abundantly clear that our neighbourhood is not open for business."

The program's effect on crime in Cabbagetown isn't clear. Violent crimes like assault and street robbery are up about 30 per cent from last year, but property crime is down about 20 per cent from a year ago.

But Toronto police say there has been a reduction in drug dealing and prostitution because of the community witness program. And residents claim credit for making sure more than two dozen drug dealers, prostitutes and their customers got stricter sentences.

When Stephens and her husband bought their home 26 years ago, Cabbagetown was a quiet neighbourhood. That changed in the late 1980s when crack cocaine arrived. The ferocity of crack's addictiveness, coupled with the de-institutionalization of Ontario's mentally ill and a general rise in poverty and homeless levels, made for a potent mix.

"We had crack heads wandering around doing almost anything they wanted, aided and abetted by the dealers and the prostitutes," says Stephens. "It came to the point where you'd go out the front door and you had to brace yourself saying, `What am I going to find now? Will I find a crack head unconscious there? How much blood will there be on the sidewalk from a fight?"'

Gerri Orwin leads the Seaton-Ontario-Berkeley Residents Association, named after the streets where its members live.

"We started finding that prostitutes were taking their johns into our backyards and turning tricks there. They were doing it on people's picnic tables," she says. "What do you tell your two-year-old daughter when she picks up this used condom on your lawn?"

In 1990, angry residents began organizing. They formed neighbourhood groups, called community meetings, and began talking to the police and local politicians.

One of the problems they discovered is that minor drug dealing and prostitution are considered "victimless" crimes.

"The perception in the criminal justice system is that these are victimless crimes. And officially, the victim is the federal department of justice, which is some faceless bureaucracy in Ottawa," says Blair. "But the truth is, the victims in most of those offences are the people in this community."

Despite obstacles, the residents' associations decided to clean up the community. They got street lights installed in back alleys and convinced neighbours to fix holes in broken fences. They mounted community patrols at night. They stood on street corners to deter prostitutes and wrote down the licence plate numbers of suspected drug dealers or johns.

Stephens proudly hauls out the standard gear of a neighbourhood walker: A sturdy flashlight, binoculars, long-lens camera, clipboard and a blue nylon jacket with the words Neighbourhood Patrol emblazoned in white letters on the back.

She and her neighbours have confronted hookers and crack smokers on the street. Orwin says pimps shoved around two women with her group and hit them with a wooden plank after they told some prostitutes to move on. A number of Toronto politicians and Crown prosecutors were the first to convince residents to testify in court. Assistant Crown attorney Calvin Barry is a big fan of the process.

"I'll tell the judge: 'Your Honor, there are 20 people here in court who have come to express their concern, their revulsion with what's taking place in the community and I'd like you to consider that when you sentence the accused.' I think it helps," says Barry. "I think it's good for the judges to see. It's another piece of evidence they can look upon when it comes to deciding a sentence."

Sharon Cook is the highest profile offender to feel the community's wrath. A long-time prostitute in her mid-40s, Cook has 68 convictions for various street crimes. Last August after residents showed up in court, a judge banned her from Cabbagetown for 18 months.

Cook, who claims to have lived in Cabbagetown most of her life, now panhandles on Yonge Street. She says people she'd never seen before testified at her sentencing -- something that she says shouldn't be allowed.

"They're not victims," Cook says of the residents. "They're their own victims, because they want to live there."

She says residents have only pushed convicted offenders like her to other parts of the city. And in doing so, the courts have denied her access to the rooming houses, drop-in centres and other social services located there.

But Barry -- the Crown prosecutor -- says the rights of neighbourhood residents to testify at sentencing hearings should be guaranteed by legislation.

"Your identity is somewhat blurred in huge metropolitan cities," he says. "If somebody does a crime and there are 100,000 people in the city, everybody knows about it and the local newspaper does a big story on it.

"That doesn't happen in Toronto. So community witness evidence has more demand in a big city, because you have to put forward that this isn't just another crime that happened someplace in a city of three million. It still happened in someone's neighbourhood, where people own homes, where children have playgrounds."

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Created: April 26, 1998
Last modified: May 21, 1998

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