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Community rallies to help tenants displaced by devastating Christie Pits fire | CBC News

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A community is rallying to support residents in need who were displaced by a Jan. 15 fire in the Christie Pits neighbourhood.

Gloria Britstone, an accountant and the main community organizer, put together a GoFundMe two days after the initial blaze, with a goal of raising $20,000 to go directly to the tenants. It’s already raised $28,000.

“None of them have insurance,” Britstone said. “Either they are new immigrants, people with limited social support, or they are low income — some are on ODSP, OW, or [have] some mental health issues. They’re kind of the people that [if they’re] left out in the cold with just a shirt on their back, nobody’s coming to pick them up.”

The City of Toronto listed almost 10 safety code infractions for the building last week, and more have since been added. City and fire officials say an active investigation is now being conducted.

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Gloria Britstone arranged a donation drive shortly after the Jan. 15 fire displaced 13 units from their residences at 828 Shaw St. She says more community organizing is coming, with help from Coun. Mike Layton and MPP for University-Rosedale Jessica Bell. (Submitted by Gloria Britstone)

Becca Young, another community organizer, says while they’re grateful for the support, it’s not nearly enough to help everyone. Some people had to leave dentures and prescription lenses behind — others have more complex needs.

According to Britstone, people from six units are currently at a hotel until Jan. 29 with support from the City of Toronto. Five others are staying with friends, and one 20-year-old man is still in the hospital with fourth-degree burns, and may have to deal with with long-term health issues.

The duo organized two local community drives to package clothes and toiletries. They now have a website dedicated to helping the displaced tenants.

“That’s the reality for them,” Young said. “When you think about where $30,000 spreads across 13 households, you realize it’s nowhere near enough to really get started and to replace what’s been lost.”

Community organizers Gloria Britstone (left) and Becca Young are working to rally dozens of volunteers to help with volunteer efforts for the displaced tenants on 828 Shaw St. (Submitted by Gloria Britstone and Becca Young)

History of infractions, complaints

Just 10 days before the fire, a smaller fire took out one whole unit in the building but was contained by emergency fire services, according to displaced tenant Charleen Edwards.

On Jan. 11, the city opened an investigation into the building, which currently has 12 violations of the Ontario Fire Code, Fire Protection and Prevention Act or Municipal Code, according to the city website.

In an email to CBC News, Toronto Fire Services said the Office of the Fire Marshal, Toronto Fire Service and Toronto Police Service completed their at the scene portion of the investigation Thursday afternoon. 

“Part of the comprehensive investigation will be to determine if any of the Fire Code violations that were identified on Jan. 11 contributed to the fire,” reads the statement.

“Toronto Fire is still in the preliminary stages of its investigation, so it would be premature to comment.”

According to an email statement from Municipal Licensing & Standards, 828 Shaw St. is registered with the city’s RentSafeTO program, a bylaw enforcement effort ensuring that building owners and operators comply with maintenance standards.

From 2018 to Jan. 17, 2022, 53 complaints were received for 828 Shaw St. Nine property standards orders and two notices of violation were issued. Since 2018, 12 charges have been laid and 10 re-inspections fees were levied against the building owners for not completing orders within a reasonable time frame.

The building is owned by Rakesh Gupta under the company Gupta Realty. A representative of the building’s management told CBC News they are working “around the clock” to offer tenants temporary accommodations in other properties owned by Gupta Realty.

They declined to comment on the recent infraction history and cthe ause of the fire, sayng it’s too soon in the investigation to speculate. 

It’s unclear how many tenants management has been able to help.

Problems before the fire

For Charleen Edwards, the problems started long before the fire happened.

Edwards, a 52-year-old on the Ontario Disability Support Program, says for five years she paid over $1,100 a month and lived with cockroaches and mice, dealt with stolen mail and had difficulty contacting the property owners when she needed help.

“When I moved into this building, everything changed,” said Edwards. “I went from a size 16 to below a zero. I got depressed, started drinking and ended up in the hospital a couple times. And my kids and I were having problems because … we were there.”

Charleen Edwards was a tenant of 828 Shaw St. for five years before a fire on Jan. 15 burnt down almost everything she owned. (Submitted by Charleen Edwards)

She says 828 Shaw St. was her only choice of housing after she was forced out of her three-bedroom house a few years ago. When she realized the fees she’d have to pay just to fight the eviction, she realized it would be too easy to fall through the cracks.

“I had nowhere to go and the only place that would accept me [was 828 Shaw St.],” said Edwards. “There’s not one tenant in there that can defend themselves.”

Edwards lost almost everything she owned in the fire, from essential furniture to treasured mementos of her two children. Although community support has kept her afloat since, she doesn’t know what’s in store for her in the long-term.

Lawyer Kenneth Wakely, who lives in the neighburhood, told CBC News that in situations like these, displaced tenants could be entitled to reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses, and a difference in housing or accommodations fees.

“And if there were injuries, if there are injuries that are sustaining and especially ones that could interfere with someone’s ability to earn a living, then the landlord could be on the hook for those injuries as well,” he said.

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