A downtown social-housing complex recently dubbed a safe and drug-free haven for recovering addicts and their children has turned into a refuge for the crack, cocaine and heroine users who also live there.
The Elm Centre, a 300-unit, women-only building owned and managed by the Young Womens’ Christian Association (YWCA), opened in December to great fanfare as a place offering affordable housing with “on-site individual support connection to mental health, addiction and health services.”
But Annalee Hopkins, a one-time crack user who has been clean for 18 years, complained Monday that tenants working hard to stay off drugs are having their lives upended and endangered by a group of residents that fall under the building’s harm reduction program. The tenants live in the building but continue to openly use drugs.
Hopkins said no one informed her there would be users in the building when she signed her lease, insisting that the outlawing of drugs should be a part of each tenant’s occupancy agreement.
“I don’t want to be constantly reminded of what I used to be. I’m trying to live my life (drug free), and seeing this stuff sends me backwards,” said Hopkins, who became addicted to drugs shortly after ending up on the streets at 12. She now suffers from a severe anxiety disorder.
Hopkins also said there are around 60 children in the building living with their mothers — kids who see the drug use first-hand, every day.
“Children (become) what they see. I worry about the next generation. Are these kids the next generation of drug addicts?” Hopkins said.
She added that while many others feel just as she does, they’re too worried about losing their housing to speak out.
“The message that is being given to us is (the YWCA’s) harm reduction module is solely for the addicts currently using, and not for anyone else in the building.”
The drug use is “rampant,” said Hopkins, who claimed to have seen it in the hallways, the elevators and all around the outside of the building.
According to Hopkins, there was an occasion in the hallway when she ran over a crack pipe with her granddaughter’s stroller. Then there was the time she stood at her balcony window and saw two tenants run across the street with male companions to smoke crack on a concrete bench.
Kim Snow of Ryerson University’s child and youth services program agreed with Hopkins.
“Should kids be exposed to crack pipes and drug deals? No,” said Snow, adding that the YWCA should have programs in place to support children living in such buildings.
Then there is the inevitable violence that follows drug use. Hopkins said she has twice been physically assaulted by strange men trying to get into the building, either to do a deal or to visit at least one apartment that serves as a brothel for one tenant’s prostitution business.
YWCA spokesman Sarah Blackstock said the building has around 20 staff members, but has only “one or two” security guards during the evening hours and on weekends. She also acknowledged that the building has its share of “messy” problems.
“There are challenges at the building and we are trying to deal with them,” insisted Blackstock, who added that the organization’s first priority is to house vulnerable people. “It’s a complicated building. I can understand why (Hopkins) is frustrated ... It’s our job to work as hard as we can to ... house (people), but we will take measures to protect our tenants.”
Blackstock also said that there has always been hope on the part of the YWCA that tenants who are still using drugs will eventually rid themselves of their addictions after being provided with stable housing.
She said the YWCA is working to evict three tenants for causing problems. But like any eviction, said Blackstock, the YWCA must go through a lengthy process with the Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board.
The building is financed by rent paid by tenants, funding from the city and province and cash raised through fundraising, said Blackstock.
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