What can we do about TTC violence? There’s ‘no magic answer’

City officials are warning there will be no quick fix for the rash of violence that has hit Toronto’s transit system and shaken riders in recent weeks.

While the mayor, TTC, and police all pledged Wednesday to take some immediate steps to keep passengers safe, they cautioned that the spate of attacks is rooted in wider problems like a lack of mental illness supports that will take time and co-ordinated efforts to address.

“There’s not one solution, and solutions are probably going to be very tough,” Coun said. Jon Burnside (Ward 16, Don Valley East), who chairs the TTC board.

He framed the recent incidents as a result of “society’s problems migrating onto the transit system.”

On Wednesday, Toronto Police announced they had charged Leah Valdez, 43, with attempted murder after she allegedly approached a stranger on the Spadina streetcar a day earlier and stabbed her multiple times in the face and head. Hours later the service reported that a 16-year-old had suffered serious injuries after being stabbed on a bus near Bloor Street and Old Mill Trail on Wednesday afternoon.

A video was posted on reddit of a TTC operator suggesting passengers call the mayor’s office if they’d “like to voice (their) displeasure” when subway service was suspended between Keele and Ossington stations. This comes after several safety incidents and service issues in recent days.

The stabbings occurred less than two months after 31-year-old Vanessa Kurpiewska was allegedly stabbed to death at High Park station by a man she didn’t know. In July, Nyima Dolma, 28, died after she was set on fire while on a bus near Kipling station, in what police said was a random hate-motivated attack.

Statistics kept by the transit agency show the number of offenses against both customers and employees are on the rise. The TTC says the higher number of vulnerable people taking refuge on its vehicles since COVID-19 slashed ridership is a factor, although it’s not known what role, if any, mental illness or homelessness has played in specific incidents.

On Wednesday, TTC CEO Rick Leary called the apparent arbitrary nature of the violence “really disturbing,” and said the agency is working with Mayor John Tory, Toronto police and union partners to come up with a response.

Immediately, the TTC is putting more staff in stations, including managers and assistant managers, to make riders feel safer, Leary said.

Burnside said his hope is that having more transit workers present on the network will allow the agency to proactively identify and extend help to people in crisis before conflicts arise. He’s asking for data about where offenses are occurring so staff can be deployed to the highest risk areas.

The TTC is also encouraging customers to make use of the designated waiting areas in subway stations, which have security cameras and intercoms where riders can reach station staff.

Long term, Leary said, the TTC plans to use increased funding from the city in the 2023 budget to fill 25 vacant special constable positions and hire for 25 new ones, though training new workers takes several months. The TTC is also planning to hire 10 more Streets to Homes outreach workers, who help people experiencing homelessness.

But Leary stressed what’s happening on the TTC is part of “a societal issue that has to be addressed.”

“We’re a transit system, but we’re doing our part,” he said.

“Where are the other levels of government talking about funding for housing and mental health to address the root of these problems? They’re sporadic.”

Toronto Police spokesperson Stephanie Sayer said as a result of the recent violence, the service has sent a directive to all its officers “encouraging them to engage with passengers and TTC operators during the course of their duties and also provide a visible policing presence on transit vehicles to reassure passengers and deter criminal or inappropriate behaviour.”

“These issues are complex, and we are working in partnership with the City, the TTC and other agencies to address them,” Sayer said.

One TTC board member questioned the efficacy of adding more police officers and special constables to the system, however.

Chris Moise (Ward 13, Toronto-Centre) said officers will be able to remove people from transit. “And you’ll put them back out where, onto the sidewalk?” he asked.

He said he worried that fare hikes and cuts to transit service in the 2023 budget will further decrease ridership and lead to more crime on the system as it empties out.

“I think we’re doing all the wrong things at the wrong time,” he said.

Tory, who earlier on Wednesday issued a statement calling for a national summit on mental health, told reporters he has had individual meetings this week about TTC safety with Leary and Police Chief Myron Demkiw, and that he has been in contact with the transit union.

He backed plans to increase the number of TTC staff, outreach workers and officers on the system, saying their presence may offer deterrence but also a sense of reassurance to the public.

However, he emphasized that there is “no magic answer.”

Tory said the mental health summit should have happened “yesterday” and that it would ideally be a group of maybe 25 people from all levels of government who can sit down and hash out who is responsible for funding the services we need and how to co- coordinate them.

“You know when we proved we could do that on a health matter? During the pandemic,” he said.

Dr. Sandy Simpson, chair of forensic psychiatry at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Toronto, cautioned that mental illness itself is unlikely to be the central culprit of the recent violence.

While people battling the most severe mental illnesses like psychosis are overrepresented among accused in violent incidents compared to how many people are diagnosed, they still make up a tiny fraction of the overall number of individuals accused, he said.

Pointing a finger at the mentally ill risks alienating people living with those diagnoses and causing them to move away from supports, Simpson said. It also allows officials to skim over public policy failures he believes play a more significant role in causing violence, like social assistance rates and minimum wages that keep people in poverty.

While Simpson doesn’t see increased access to mental health care as the panacea for addressing violence in Toronto, he sees it as one of many root factors — with an obvious mismatch between what’s available today and what is needed. Mental health services are so underfunded it can take a year for somebody with complex mental health needs to access professionals who can help, he noted.

“We talk about people falling through the cracks, but the cracks are the wrong metaphor. We don’t have cracks. We have caverns,” he said.

With files from Alyshah Hasham and Jennifer Pagliaro

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr
Lex Harvey is a Toronto-based transportation reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @lexharvs
Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Reach her via email: victoriagibson@thestar.ca

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