Hundreds of St. James Town residents are calling on the city to designate the downtown community a neighbourhood improvement area, with advocates saying it’s long been “highly neglected.”
Community organizers with the St. James Town Service Providers’ Network, a collection of over 30 agencies in the city, have collected almost 700 signatures on a petition.
On Friday, the organization will pass on the petition to Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, who will then ask city officials to re-evaluate the designation through a member motion heading to city council on Wednesday.
Robb Johannes, co-chair for the St. James Town Service Providers’ Network, said the designation would increase funding and support services for the neighbourhood that is often “highly overlooked and highly neglected.”
North St. James Town is considered to be one of the most densely populated areas in Toronto, with half the population identifying as immigrants, according to the city’s 2016 neighbourhood profile.
Over 40 per cent of the area’s residents live in poverty, the document shows.
Johannes explained that several incidents in the last year, including the 650 Parliament Street electrical fire — and subsequent water and power outages at buildings on Wellesley Street that saw massive displacements of residents — highlighted the vulnerabilities of the neighbourhood.
“Those incidents at each of those buildings drew attention to some of the larger systemic issues that have been happening,” Johannes added.
“When things do happen, the community often finds they’re mobilizing, looking after themselves, before the city comes to get involved.”
St. James Town evaluation was ‘skewed,’ Wong-Tam believes
“I don’t understand what the problem is and why it hasn’t been designated,” said Milan Slavkovic, who’s lived in the neighbourhood for over 10 years.
“It’s getting more expensive to live here. People can’t afford to eat. We only have one food bank in the neighbourhood.”
Slavkovic said he worries about the community’s vulnerable residents, particularly half of the senior population that lives alone and doesn’t have air conditioning.
So why isn’t the area deemed one that’s in need of city improvement?
In 2014, as part of the Toronto Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy 2020, the city recommended 31 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods to be classified as neighbourhood improvement areas.
City officials looked at several indicators such as income, education, voting rates, the physical and mental health of the neighbourhood and the overall environment.
Each neighbourhood was given a score out of 100, considered to be “the total weight of unnecessary, unfair and unjust differences faced by neighbourhood residents.”
North St. James Town ranked 39th on the list, with a score of 47.55, five points higher than the benchmark to be designated as a neighbourhood improvement area of 42.89.
According to Wong-Tam, a mapping error might be the issue. She said the city included a stretch of affluent housing on Jarvis Street in the neighbourhood boundaries and that might have resulted in the community not being added to the list.
“I believe those are the numbers that skewed the St. James Town evaluation,” she said.
Community ‘under-resourced,’ says advocate
Nayanthi Wijesuriya, an intake worker and client engagement lead at St. James Town’s Community Corner, believes the city needs to address issues like mental health, addiction and housing.
The outreach office, attached to 200 Wellesley Street East, acts as the first point of contact for many residents and newcomers to connect with health, employment and housing services.
Wijesuriya, who’s been working there for the past five years, echoed Johanssen’s sentiments and said the 650 Parliament Street electrical fire and power and water outages at the Wellesley Street East buildings highlight how “under-resourced” the community is.
“This community is vibrant, but they also have multiple challenges.”
Through her member motion, Wong-Tam is hoping city officials will re-evaluate North St. James Town once again, but with the “proper boundaries of what the neighbourhood community would describe as St. James Town: Parliament to Sherbourne, Bloor down to Wellesley.”
Results of the evaluation will be reported to the Economic and Community Development Committee next year as part of the Toronto Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy 2020.