What the disappearances say about life in Canada’s shelter cities

As a child in the 1980s, Elizabeth Brookes spent hours staring through the windows of the Laurier Towers, wondering what kind of people were living there.

Now 56, she grew up in the funky, mostly working-class Toronto neighbourhood of Regent Park. It’s an unpretentious place that offers little for the high-rise dweller. There’s no park, but lots of shopping and, perhaps more important, a residents’ association that looked after the original Parks Hill public-housing complex and its bungalows.

“The people working in those buildings are the most like-minded people,” says Ms. Brookes, whose opinions seem to have always been shaped by her neighbourhood’s unusual dynamic. “They seem to stand up for each other. That’s why it’s so safe up there.”

A decade ago, life didn’t feel safe on that street or in Regent Park. At the time, there were several murders in the area. According to Toronto’s police statistics, there were 27 murders in Toronto in 1981. A decade later, the figure was almost double that, a 49-year high.

Regent Park in particular saw a wide range of murders. The 2005 killing of Robert Flemming, who was pulled in by two women, one of whom pulled out a pistol and fired off three shots. Lawrence Finley, 19, was stabbed in a murder that some of the neighbours thought was an outburst of violence. And Mr. Finley’s great-uncle, Harvey Joy, lived there at the time of his murder. He came home that night only to be found dead.

Then in 2008, a couple of neighbours found a man’s body in a hallway near the apartments, his face bruised and the letter “R” tattooed in white on his right shoulder. A small child, it was believed to be his daughter. The man had been beaten to death.

And now this year, Regent Park is struggling with a spate of disappearances that’s claiming the lives of several young women. The youngest victim was 16.

Ralph Martin, a Regent Park pastor, is both alarmed and concerned by what’s happened.

“It’s not a place that people want to be anywhere near,” says Mr. Martin, whose congregation includes families of those who have gone missing.

Dawn Barber lives in a building with a young family. “The kids are so small and vulnerable,” she says. “It’s so terrifying to think of them being alone. I’m just trying to take my 5-year-old. It’s terrible.”

Ms. Barber says the families that live in the complex aren’t necessarily involved in criminal activities. But they worry enough to keep their children inside.

The disappearances of the young women have some in Regent Park wondering if the murders are happening all over the city, or at least in Toronto’s parks. There have been homicides in other parts of Toronto. But now, a year after the deaths of three women, including the girl found in the hallway, Toronto’s police chief has called for a review of the city’s overall policing strategy.

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