Oshawa activist takes on city’s first anti-popular

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Christeen Thornton, Oshawa activist and founder of a local anti-poverty group, near the John Street Bridge on October 8.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The John Street Bridge spans Oshawa Creek, the creek that runs through the heart of this auto manufacturing hub just east of Toronto. Christen Thornton was walking through it one day this summer when she heard a strange noise.

At first she thought there was something wrong with her car. But when she returned to investigate, she spotted a small box attached to the underside of the concrete bridge. It emitted a piercing, high-pitched sound that assaulted her ears, forcing her to cover them with her hands and back away.

Mrs. Thornton had come across Oshawa’s first insect repellent. Without announcement or public debate, the city installed it last year to prevent people wandering the city streets from congregating under the bridge. Like a recorded hawk cry aimed at stopping pigeons from roosting in a mall or an ultrasonic blaster that claims to drive mice out of a house, it’s meant to ward off pests, but in this case the targets are human. .

Ms. Thornton has done some research. These devices are designed to discourage wandering and “anti-social behavior” by producing intense high frequency sound. Many are aimed at chasing noisy teenagers. The Mosquito wander alarm, explains its British manufacturer, “works by emitting an alternating high-frequency tone of 16 to 18.5 kilohertz”, inaudible to those over the age of around 25 but “intensely irritating” to those under that age. . Owners can switch to an “all age” setting for use against others.

Ms Thornton posted an outrageous Tik Tok video calling it an act of “psychological warfare” against Oshawa’s most stigmatized people: the homeless and struggling with addictions. The device, she says, is expressly designed to cause them pain, for no other crime than seeking refuge under a bridge. “I thought we were done with corporal punishment,” says the 33-year-old mother of two, who founded a local anti-poverty group and calls herself the Squeaky Wheel of Oshawa.

A high-pitched sound device intended to dissuade people from loitering is affixed under the bridge.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

She’s not the only one upset. Councilor Brian Nicholson says subjecting vulnerable people to unbearable noise is simply ‘cruel’. If the city sent law enforcement to hit homeless people with sticks, people would be outraged. “And I see that in the same vein. It is simply not the role of government to inflict pain.

Homeless people in Oshawa say the space under the John Street Bridge was one of the only places they could hang out undisturbed. Jake Kidman, 30, said security guards were always telling him and his friends to move on. “Out of sight out of mind, that’s what they tell us. Well how can we be out of sight if there’s nowhere to go.

Several other cities that have rolled out the noise canceling devices have had to back down under public pressure. Winnipeg, for its part, installed four under bridges and overpasses in 2020, only to silence them after an online backlash. So far, Oshawa shows no sign of following suit.

When Ms Thornton complained to the city, she received a memo from security manager Haik Beglarov who called it a Crime Prevention by Environmental Design, or CPTED, measure. The area below the bridge has been the scene of gun violence, drug use, overdoses and robberies, he said. In response, the city stepped up patrols there, improved lighting, and installed the noise barrier.

When The Globe asked about the decision, the Oshawa Communications Department responded with a similar statement. Many residents, he said, feared for their safety when using a walking and cycling path that passes under the bridge. He said officials lowered the volume on the device after complaints over the summer. They also hired an acoustic engineer to test noise levels in the area. The engineer found it no louder than a “dishwasher or a conversation one meter apart”.

A sharps disposal bin below deck.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Disputes like the one over the noise device are raging across the country as cities grapple with the opioid crisis and the housing crisis, related issues whose effects are visible on their streets. The argument is particularly acute in Oshawa. The booming community of 170,000 is trying to overcome its image as a gritty, gray industrial hub. City boosters highlight its modern colleges and universities, robust job market, booming downtown, craft breweries, and new hotels.

But it’s hard to ignore the multitude of marginalized people who populate parts of the city, visiting its shelters, soup kitchens and methadone clinics. A tally revealed that there were 573 homeless people in Oshawa and its surrounding region, Durham, in 2021. This figure was up from 291 in 2018. Durham recorded a record 130 opioid-related deaths l year, more than four times the figure for 2015. .

Under Mayor Dan Carter, Oshawa has taken a hard line on the mess in its downtown area. He hired security guards to patrol his sidewalks, forced a group that was handing out snacks in a park to move out, and toppled an informal monument to those who died on city streets. Elected in 2018, Mr Carter was once homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol himself, but went to rehab, recovered and became a local broadcaster and businessman.

Many locals support him. In fact, some would like it to go further.

They say the city center has gone downhill, with needles thrown into the parks and creepy people in the corners. “I would love to come with my grandkids and enjoy downtown, but I can’t,” says James Bountrogiannis, who is running for mayor this month and would like to see a crackdown on petty theft and crime. open drug use. .

But even tells him that the noise device is a step too far. “Human beings are human beings, not dogs and cats, and we should treat them that way,” he said.

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