Staff of a residential home for developmentally disabled youth with mental health issues newly opened in a north Etobicoke neighbourhood faced an angry, anxious group of residents Thursday night.
Kipling Avenue and West Humber Boulevard area residents packed Toronto police 23 Division station’s community room on May 15 to hear from Griffin Centre staff and city staff. Many charged the residential home should move to another area of the city.
“I’ve never heard of a facility where the police come so many times,” one man said. “Something is very, very wrong with your facility that the police come so often. Why are you still licensed?”
Griffin Centre is a non-profit, multiservice mental health agency that operates five residential homes across the city and in Richmond Hill and offers programs and services funded by the Ministry of Community and Social Services and the Ministry for Children and Youth Services.
The centre recently purchased and renovated the house at 22 Jeffcoat Dr. where four challenged youth, some with autism, have lived for the past two months. All have learning issues and emotional problems, which include anxiety, depression, explosive anger and complicated family situations that prevent them from living at home, Deanna Dannell, Griffin Centre’s director of youth and family support services, told the crowd.
Staff are in the house “24/7” she said, adding staff are trained to deal with “aggressive and volatile behaviour, part of which is knowing when to call the police. Typically, we don’t have emergency services come as much as they have in the last few weeks.”
Asked the nature of police calls, a 23 Division officer explained police remove a child from the home under the Ontario Mental Health Act and take them to hospital when the child is a danger to himself or herself, or a danger to others, including other residents or home staff.
Ward 2 Etobicoke North Councillor Doug Ford arrived 25 minutes late for the meeting his office organized, making a campaign-style quip about snarled traffic and the city’s need for more subways.
Within 10 minutes of the meeting’s start and Dannell’s presentation, residents began yelling out comments and questions to the four Griffin Centre staff seated at the front of the room.
“This is not a place for mental people. This is a residential area. Why don’t you build a house out on a farm?” one man said.
Another man agreed: “There is nothing wrong with what the Griffin group is doing with these children. They’re just doing it in the wrong location.”
One woman complained residents received little notice before the house opened: “Do you think two days is ample notice for us to react to this? Wouldn’t it be better for you to tell us before?”
Dannell invited residents to an upcoming open house.
“What do I say to my three kids under the age of seven when one of these kids freaks out?” asked one woman, who declined to give her name. “When my child says, ‘Mommy, why are there police here again?’ What do I say?”
David Melgarejo lives next door. He alleged a youth throwing keys caused him concern for his one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter’s safety.
“The solution is for them to move out. Locate the facility in another place. This is a community for people, not for that. I have nothing against the kids. If the kids need help, they need help.”
Theo Lagakos called the new residential home a “polarizing issue”.
“The method in which Griffin Centre came into the neighbourhood telling us by letter a week before with no open house...” he said. “People are worried. They don’t know what’s going on. A small house in a residential neighbourhood converted into a facility is not what’s best for the kids.”
Dannell further explained the residential home is not an open custody facility, where youth ordered by the youth justice courts serve their sentences, nor is it a detention centre.
Midway through the hour-long meeting, Ford seemed to have made up his mind.
“We can’t have fire trucks and police cars and EMS there all the time and eight cars parked on the street. You’ve ruined the community,” Ford told Griffin Centre staff.
In the next breath, he said he would ask them to relocate the home.
“You can’t destroy a community like this. People have worked 30 years for their home...My heart goes out to kids with autism. But no one told me they’d be leaving the house. If it comes down to it, I’ll buy the house myself and resell it.”
Ford accused centre staff of not being up front with him about the home, a charge they denied saying they explained the facility to him at a meeting in his office months ago.
Ford urged another meeting in two weeks with centre staff, city staff and two community representatives: “I want to work with you and move forward,” he said.
Ford roused the crowd one last time at meeting’s end.
“I’m going to get the you-know-what kicked out of me. Tomorrow, I’ll be inundated by every media in the country saying I don’t like kids with autism,” he said.
One man asked if the youth had criminal backgrounds. The answer was no.
Ford asked if any of the four are sex offenders. The answer was no.
Dannell said in an interview after the meeting, she understood residents’ concerns and that centre staff are “committed to having a relationship with the community. We know from experience it takes a year” for that relationship to grow, she said. “We want to demystify mental health. Understand these are children. This is their home.”