By Wren Pragg
Gun violence in Toronto has steadily increased over the past 30 years. While many communities have been impacted, Rexdale in particular, has been hit hard.
Situated next to a vibrant green park near Rexdale Boulevard and Islington Avenue, YWCA Toronto’s Bergamot Apartments has been a community fixture for the past 12 years. Bergamot is one of several affordable housing programs run by YWCA Toronto and consists of 68 rent-geared-to-income units for single women and women with children. Bergamot contains an Early Learning Centre and holistic programming for tenants. Some tenants have been living at Bergamot as long as it has been open.
Over the past 12 years, staff at Bergamot has seen a marked increase in gun violence in the community. Many women and mothers at Bergamot fear for their children’s safety and for themselves, both in the neighbourhood and at school. The beautiful park next to Bergamot is often empty, as mothers are too afraid to let their children play outside. The apartments reside in a priority area of Toronto because of recurring issues of violence, poverty, and a lack of available services.
In response to these challenges, Bergamot staff are heavily involved in community responses to violence, and in collective efforts made to prevent further trauma and loss. Staff members attend community coalition meetings, are involved with trainings at the Toronto Police College, and work closely with the Community Safety Development Officer for their ward, Saleha Nahdi.
Bergamot Community Support Worker, Amanda Surujpaul, explains that Saleha helps to provide programming, services, funding, and create job opportunities for residents and the broader community. After two separate shootings in the area, Amanda applied for two grants from the Community Crisis Response Fund to provide programming focused around healing from trauma. The names of the two projects were titled “The Healing Journey” and “Together We Are Stronger”. Amanda was successful in securing the grants and tenants took part in self-care workshops and projects that promote resilience.
As Amanda explained, programming was implemented using the grants which included a workshop that taught the women how to make self-care bath products, a mindfulness nature walk at the Humber Arboretum, and a ‘scarves of resilience’ workshop. Bergamot also collaborated with a community partner to facilitate a group discussion about violence and loss for the women and youth.
The tenants of Bergamot also took part in a Community Dinner of Hope, “where women decorated the tree of hope with quotes about what hope means to them.” Bergamot staff was additionally able to use the funding to arrange for an art therapist to provide six months of group sessions for tenants.
While these initiatives represent creative community responses to violence, Amanda points out that more consistent, and culturally sensitive mental health funding is needed for women who have been impacted by gun violence. A community should not wait for disaster to occur to receive appropriate supports. And, as advocates have suggested, affordable housing, good jobs, and other opportunities are an integral part of community solutions to gun violence.
Community support programs play an important role in mitigating the social, cultural, psychological and financial effects of violent loss for women and children.
A key part of the solution then, for Amanda and others at Bergamot, is to continue cultivating safety, hope and resilience in a community deeply affected by loss. In order to do so, greater systemic funding is needed, by all levels of government, to support women and children in Toronto affected by gun violence. Marginalized communities must be able to access the care and community supports they need beyond moments of crisis.
“Our own internal community is strong”, Amanda says. With the support of sustained government funding, it only stands to grow stronger.
Think Like a Tree
Soak up the sun
Affirm life’s magic
Be graceful in the wind
Stand tall after a storm
Feel refreshed after it rains
Grow strong without notice
Be prepared for each season
Provide shelter to strangers
Hang tough through a cold spell
Emerge renewed at the first signs of spring
Stay deeply rooted at while reaching for the sky
Be still long enough to hear your own leaves rustling.
- Karen Shragg