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Advocates urge officials to heed grieving mom's plea for more mental health, housing

A Toronto Transit Commission sign is shown at a downtown Toronto subway stop Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. Advocates are urging government officials to heed a grieving mother's plea for more funding and support for mental health, housing and social services after her teenage son was stabbed to death in a Toronto subway station. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

TORONTO — Advocates are urging government officials to heed a grieving mother's plea for more funding and support for mental health, housing and social services after her teenage son was stabbed to death in a Toronto subway station.

Gabriel Magalhaes, 16, was stabbed on Saturday night while sitting on a bench at the Keele subway station. Jordan O'Brien-Tobin, 22, of no fixed address, has been charged with first-degree murder.

It was one in a string of violent attacks against Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) passengers and staff in recent months.

Gabriel's mother, Andrea Magalhaes, told CBC Radio's "As It Happens" on Monday that she wanted to "just hide in my bed and never get up again," but she had to speak out on the systemic issues, such as homelessness and mental health, that experts say are root issues underlying the violence.

"More needs to be done to help people in crisis, more needs to be done so people don't get to the point where they are in crisis," Magalhaes said in the CBC interview.

"We need more social services, we need more investment into physical and mental health. We need more support for housing. I feel like if things keep going the way they are going right now, so many people are going to be suffering the horrible pain that I'm going through right now."

Dr. Andrew Boozary, head of Population Health and Social Medicine at Toronto's University Health Network, marvelled at "the courage of this mother."

"In the few hours after losing their son in an unimaginable way (she's) still articulating that this is about people's rights to housing and the investments and supports (needed)," Boozary said.

"If we don't listen to this person's plea, this mother's plea, that is so rooted in the evidence and the unimaginable experience that she now has to endure, we are failing everyone."

Magalhaes' plea shows "an incredible amount of understanding and connection with people on all sides of violence — and it is supported by the research," said Michael Anhorn, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association's Toronto branch, in an email.

"Addressing people’s social determinants of health like income, housing and social belonging paired with the ability to access high quality mental health clinical supports when and where they need them would go a long way to improve the health and wellness of all of us," Anhorn said.

"Ms. Magalhaes’ call for better funding is a call for all of us to do better for everyone in our communities.”

The City of Toronto has responded to the recent violence by increasing police presence on the TTC, as well as expanding its outreach program to people who are homeless and seek shelter in the transit system.

But Boozary said the issue is "not about more police."

"It is about investing in people's access to mental health care, to housing, to the income supports and social supports that people need," he said.

“The longer we try to shirk these investments and our social accountability issues, there is no end in near sight for the kind of tragic outcomes and heartbreak that we're unfortunately seeing far too often."

In a statement emailed to The Canadian Press, Toronto Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie said the city funds both policing and social services.

"We continue to increase investments in community safety across the city, including police, crisis services, anti-violence programming, funding for youth and families, and funding for supportive and affordable housing," McKelvie said, adding that investing in mental health is "a key priority."

The deputy mayor also called on other levels of government to take action.

"I hope this heartbreaking tragedy will encourage the federal and provincial governments to join us in confronting all of the issues that we must confront on the TTC and across the city – crime, mental health, addiction, and homelessness," McKelvie said.

"We know we have to take a comprehensive approach to community safety and we have done that as a City government by investing in supports for people, by investing in housing, and investing in the TTC and the police. We need the other governments to bring forward more investments in these areas as well and to also tighten up our justice system."

A spokesperson for Michael Tibollo, associate minister of mental health and addictions, said the rise in violence "on our streets and transit systems is deeply concerning."

"As just announced in our 2023 Budget, our government is investing an additional $425 million over the next three years to community mental health organizations across Ontario. In addition, we announced a $202 million increase to the Homelessness Prevention Program to build supportive housing that will keep our most vulnerable people off the street. These were the top two asks of municipalities for our 2023 Budget, which we are delivering," Sarah Domino said in an emailed statement.

"We’ll continue to work with our municipal partners, like Toronto, to keep the people of Ontario safe."

-With files from Sarah Smellie.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.

Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

Nicole Ireland, The Canadian Press

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