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Marcus Gee: Toronto Community Housing reward for crime tips sends the wrong message

Getting witnesses to crime to report what they have seen is a big problem in many Toronto neighbourhoods, where there is a taboo on turning "snitch." So when residents of a public housing project came forward to talk about the fatal of shooting Christopher Kotsopoulos, it was such good news that housing authorities decided it was worth rewarding. They are showering the Swansea Mews project with $150,000 in repairs. The complex near Windermere and the Queensway will get a new fence, better lighting, an extra security camera and repairs to its laundry room. Local students will get a backpack of supplies before they return to class in the fall, as well.

It's a nice gesture with the best of motives, but what does it say to the thousands of other public housing residents who have to live with crumbling paint and cracked windows year after year? Toronto Community Housing has a repair backlog of $750-million, a staggering figure. With more than 160,000 residents in 2,200 buildings, it is in a constant struggle to keep up with demands for necessary and long-delayed maintenance. It will strike some TCH residents as odd, to say the least, that the agency can suddenly find the money for Swansea Mews while they are left hanging.

TCH chief executive Gene Jones defends the repair reward. "I want to put the message out to all my residents that you've got to come together as a community in order to eradicate and minimize criminal activity in their neighbourhood," he told me. "A lot of people don't want to come forward because they don't want to get involved. They don't want to be labelled as a snitch. Hopefully this may encourage them to go out there and start doing it right now, not because of the reward but because it's the right thing to do."

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He says $150,000 is small potatoes compared with TCH's annual capital spending of about $100-million. And, in any case, the money didn't come from the main capital budget and so won't delay repairs at other properties. TCH authorities managed to find the money elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, the local tenant group likes the decision to expedite the repairs. "I wouldn't look on it was a reward, I would look on it as a thank you," said Veronica Omolewa, who represents residents in the 154 units of the project. "When you have kids who come home with a good report, you say, 'I will take you out to dinner.' It is a 'thank you' that the person has done the right thing."

Mr. Kotsopoulos, 26, was shot dead in the afternoon Aug. 5 in front of several witnesses. Police arrested and charged three men after Swansea Mews residents came forward. They are seeking two others.

Ms. Omolewa says that by talking to police, residents made a statement. "If anyone wants to come into Swansea, beware – they are going to get caught," she said. "We aren't going to be hiding them, that's one thing for sure. We have each other's back in here. We look out for each other."

She hopes residents are also sending a message to other housing projects: "If anything is going wrong in the community, don't be afraid. Tell the truth."

But if thanking Swansea Mews was the intention, there are other ways. Why not a congratulatory visit from the mayor, police chief and local councillor? Or a community picnic?

Upkeep demands, surely, should be addressed in order of urgency and need, not according to the conduct of the residents. If people in other projects have not come forward to co-operate with police after a crime, it is not necessarily because they are less noble. They may face a more complex, less blatant crime. Or they may face a more intimidating level of violence and threat.

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TCH is right to encourage communities to band together against crime, but the prospect of a nicer laundry room is the wrong incentive.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More


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