KFHC addresses concerns over Bagot Street social housing building

Kingston Fire and Rescue on scene at 381 Bagot Street after someone released bear spray inside the building on Friday, May 22, 2020. Photo by Cody Stafford.

As we’ve reported in the past, the Kingston and Frontenac Housing Corporation (KFHC) building at 381 Bagot Street has been a hotbed for police activity and other emergency response actions over the past few years.

In recent months, that activity seems to have ramped up, with Kingston Police responding to calls at the address multiple times weekly, all culminating in a series of serious incidents in May of 2020. On Friday, May 22, 2020, Kingston Fire and Rescue reported to the building after residents reported a noxious odour. Police later confirmed that bear spray was released inside the building on that date. On Tuesday, May 12, 2020, Kingston Police were called to the building after a deceased fetus was located inside it by residents, and on Monday, May 11, 2020, a male was stabbed during a robbery that took place at the building.

In total, from mid-2017 to present, Kingston Police have been called to the address 496 times. Of those calls, 23 were for assaults, 11 were reported break and enters, 28 were disturbances, 35 were domestic or family disputes, eight were for fights, 58 were for suspicious activity, 15 were for thefts, 25 were for noise complaints, and two were for offences involving weapons. In the six months of 2020 so far, Kingston Police have responded to the address a total of 120 times. Police attended the address 220 times in 2019.

After Kingstonist was contacted by a resident regarding people living in the stairwells of the building, we reached out to KFHC to discuss what is happening at the social housing complex, and what is being done to remedy the situation. Mary Lynn Cousins Brame, CEO of KFHC, sat down for a candid conversation to do just that.

Understanding the building, its residents, and those who sneak into it

Cousins Brame began the conversation by expressing that she was open to discussing what KFHC has been doing with regards to 381 Bagot Street.

“So, first of all, I want to reassure you that KFHC, we are doing a number of things, and I want to reinforce that the people causing the issues are not our tenants,” she said immediately.

“So these are people who are getting into our building, which is a locked building.”

Cousins Brame gave a list of ways these non-residents are getting into the building:

  • Some tenants like to prop the door open, despite KFHC educating the tenants against this practice several times
  • Some tenants are buzzed and will simply let anyone into the building
  • Despite shortening the time the door remains open, non-residents can sneak in behind residents who use the accessible door button, which holds the door open for those in wheelchairs, with walkers, or with mobility issues to enter

Brame Cousins said it is also important for the public to understand that the 104 units in the building are all single bedroom residences. This is because the building was originally used as a seniors’ building until there was such a need for social housing in the late-90s that the provincial government shifted gears on a number of seniors’ housing buildings, converting them into adult social housing buildings. This means those 16 years of age or older can apply to be housed at the building (or any other of KFHC’s buildings) through the City’s Social Housing Registry.

“So, when people have chosen KFHC – certain areas, certain buildings – and they come up on the list, we offer them the unit. There is no screening,” Cousins Brame explained.

“In social housing there’s no screening, so we have to accept everybody, regardless of their background, rental history, health situation – we accept everybody and we get no information when they come to us,” she continued, noting that often residents have issues that prohibit them from working and that a majority of residents are either on Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

“So we have different age groups, we have different demographic groups, we have students, we have people who are working, we have people on disability. So there is a variety of backgrounds within that building.”

Cousins Brame explained that vulnerable tenants are exactly the people KFHC is here to house, but doing so comes with its own range of issues that managers with KFHC work through on a daily basis. Adding non-residents to the mix has further exacerbated the situation.

“They’re living in the stairwell… that’s where there seems to be the issue,” Cousins Brame explained, noting that police have escorted at least three individuals off the property who were there without permission.

“And then we’ve had the issue of the stairway dwellers, pulling fire alarms, smoking in the stairways, and causing our fire alarms to go off, so we’re dealing with the fire department, as well.”

What is being done

“There’s continual kicking out of homeless or whoever in our stairways. Actually, we also have Home Base Housing, their Outreach [Team] for the homeless, they are doing periodic walks every day to remove people sleeping in the stairwells,” Cousins Brame continued.

“We have the police going in, and we have our own staff who are monitoring.”

Additionally, Cousins Brame said that KFHC is working with both Kingston Police and Street Health, the latter of which is headquartered right around the corner from 381 Bagot Street on Barrack Street.

“I’m pointing fingers at Street Health, there is just a group of clientele that end up in that area. So Street Health is working with us, as well as the Kingston Police,” she said, noting that, when there are issues requiring police attendance at Street Health, police are now automatically doing a walkthrough of the building at 381 Bagot Street. Kingston Police are also bringing an adult mental healthcare worker with them for some of their walk-throughs to offer assistance to those who might need it.

KFHC also works with Street Health to have the drug paraphernalia often found in the hallways and stairways of the building removed, and they have residents who are appointed as ‘Building Monitors,’ not to deal with tenant issues, but to alert management at KFHC of any issues that may arise.

Cousins Brame also said that, in early March of 2020, when more issues started to appear at 381 Bagot Street, KFHC brought the tenants together with the idea of creating a ‘building watch’ – a group of people to act as sort of a ‘community watch’ group for the building. However, that concept ended up creating more issues than it solved, she explained.

“They got so… motivated… that they were stopping everybody in the hallway, they were accusing people, they were getting into physical altercations. So we had to stop them from doing that, because tenants in the building deserve their right to have visitors, and they can have them for such a length of time under the Housing Services Act, as well as the Residential Tenancy Act,” she explained.

“We tried to motivate our tenants ‘let’s do this together,’ but, due to some of their limitations as I’ve already outlined, they did not have the skills and capacity with which to do this. They actually caused the situation to become worse, because they were confronting everybody. So we had to put a stop to that.”

Another “Catch-22” for KFHC is that their tenants will often pressure them to evict other tenants, but then refuse to come forward as witnesses or sign documents when it comes time to deal with the Landlord-Tenant Board. Additionally, with four entrances to the building, when KFHC has tried to implement security guards to secure the building, they’ve found it was not a good use of money, particularly as a non-profit that is funded by the City of Kingston and the Province of Ontario.

“So we’re putting additional security measures in place, which I have to keep them private in order for them to be effective,” Cousins Brame added, noting that, over the past few weeks, the building has been a lot quieter and calls to police from the building have dropped off.

Added pressures during the pandemic

Cousins Brame said that the COVID-19 pandemic has also added to the issues that happen at 381 Bagot Street, noting that the pandemic has impacted the building in more ways than one.

“Another issue that is facing us at this time due to COVID-19 or the State of Emergency, [is that] the Landlord-Tenant Board are not having any hearings,” she said, noting that the pandemic has slowed up the process of being able to deal with tenants who are breaking rules and laws. “There are a few people in our building that will be facing eviction once this opens up.”

She continued to explain that there is normally more of an ebb and flow to the issues experienced throughout the year at the building, but that this year has been a bit different.

“This building, basically, in April and May, has been a hotspot, and I think some of it has been due to COVID, telling everybody stay safe, stay at home,” Cousins Brame said.

“Well, there is a group of people who don’t have a home, who do not want to abide by, let’s say, rules and guidelines in the homeless shelters,” she continued, noting that, although the City of Kingston has implemented two new shelter spaces in Kingston, there are still people living rough or between housing.

“Often people may not feel comfortable congregating in a large group, so then they’re trying to find different locations in which to stay. I assume it’s not just our building downtown, but other buildings, I imagine, are kicking people out as well.”

On top of that, a few people that were evicted from the building in January and February have continued returning to the building and trying to stay with current tenants. In those instances, no trespass orders have been issued.

Moving forward

Cousins Brame expressed that dealing with issues such as those that have arisen at 381 Bagot Street is really part of working in social housing, and said KFHC is actively working to remedy the issues as they can.

“For us, it’s an ongoing issue. It’s something we continue to monitor and we’re always working at ensuring the safety and the security of our tenants, and we’re also accountable to the taxpayer,” she said. “We have a budget to work within, but we’re trying to do our best to ensure everybody’s safety, including the community.”

And in her position as the Executive Director of KFHC, things just got a whole lot busier. On Tuesday, May 19, 2020, Town Homes Kingston officially merged with KFHC after KFHC had been managing Town Homes Kingston since July of 2019. Additionally, KFHC just broke ground for a new housing complex at 27 Wright Crescent, and the additional housing may help the overall housing issues in Kingston, as well as the issues at 381 Bagot Street.

“At 27 Wright Crescent for our new apartment building, we’ll have affordable housing, social housing, and market housing,” Cousins Brame said. “So we are busy!”

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