Major drug bust adds to problems facing Esplanade residents

By the bridge reporter

On April 14 Toronto Police announced that more than 280 kilograms of illicit drugs had been found in an apparent condominium “stash house” on The Esplanade near Yonge Street. It’s been called the largest single-day seizure in Toronto police history.

A police news release said 29-year-old Devante Moores was arrested on April 2 in an underground parking lot at 25 The Esplanade. He was allegedly caught with 50 kilos of powdered cocaine.

A warranted search of a unit in the building, a residence and a car led to an additional 139 kilos of cocaine, 97 kilos of crystal methamphetamines and $50,000 in cash, police said. Total street value of the drugs seized is said to be $28.5 million.

“We believe that the stash house was used to house these
drugs and distribute to our local neighbourhoods and our surrounding communities,” Inspector Mandeep Mann stated April 14.

The adjacent Novotel at 45 The Esplanade was converted into a temporary shelter in February 2021. Since then, neighbouring residents say they have experienced increased levels of crime and mischief. According to the police Public Safety Data Portal, reported major crime indicators along The Esplanade from Yonge Street to Church Street – including assault,
break-and-enter and robbery – increased 89 per cent during the shelter’s operating months of 2021, compared with the
same period a year earlier.

Neighbours have cited increased drug dealing and drug use around the Novotel shelter. “Where you’re going to have drug activity, you’re going to attract crime,” Esplanade resident Brenda MacDougall told the bridge.

“I believe the shelter when they say it’s only 10 per cent of the people, roughly, causing the problem. But that can make a lot of problems.”

The Novotel shelter’s 254 rooms are operated by Homes First Society, a non-profit organization specializing in temporary and supportive housing. Homes First also operates the neighbouring 194 room Strathcona Hotel shelter at 60 York Street.

Both hotels, along with The Bond Place Hotel shelter on Dundas east of Yonge Street, are owned by the Silver Hotel Group.

“It is concerning for us to learn about this incident solely because we understand and see the toll substance use or addictions takes on people and communities at large,” Homes First wrote in a statement to the bridge. Residents at 45 The Esplanade “previously lived in encampments and are very vulnerable. Some of [them] have mental health concerns and others may have addictions.”

On April 6, City Council endorsed a decision by the Economic and Community Development Committee to extend use of all 27 Covid-19 temporary shelters, including lease renewals of 13 hotels until at least April 2023.

A staff report by the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration said temporary Covid-19 shelters comprise 40 per cent of space in the city’s shelter system.

Expanded temporary housing coincides with a marked increase in on-site fatal and non-fatal drug overdoses. According to the city’s website, Toronto shelters experienced 67 overdose deaths in 2021, a 45% increase over the 46 in 2020. Non-fatal overdose calls to paramedics from Toronto shelters have increased 85 per cent to 1,496 in 2021, compared with 808 in 2020.

A 2018 study by the federal government estimated that one-fifth of Canadians are involved in substance use, with higher levels in homeless populations. Of those experiencing homelessness for more than six months, 28.2 per cent reported addictions or substance use. The average reported length of homelessness in Toronto in 2021 was ten months.

For residents on The Esplanade, the historic drug seizure has hit close to home.

“I’m shocked,” said Beenu Arya, resident of 25 The Esplanade, “that a place where I felt so safe has been taken away from me.”