Walking home on Hazel Street at around three o’clock Friday morning, third-year Laurier student Taylor Stensrud had a similar experience to several others in recent weeks and months. He was mugged of some belongings, including his phone, by a group of individuals whose covered faces left little in the way of distinguishing features, beside perhaps one: they held a gun.
With five robberies involving a firearm since the New Year, the area immediately surrounding Laurier – Northdale in particular – is garnering a more ominous reputation among students and community members once again. In Nov. 2010, The Cord printed an In Depth article on the topic and in the more than twelve months since, not much has changed. If anything, the situation may have worsened.
Benefit of experience?
“I’ve not seen anything like this here,” Rod Curran, director of Laurier’s Special Constable Services said. “The thing that’s really scary about this situation is the gun involved – using a weapon.”
“This is a rare [kind of] incident going on right now, which is why we need to catch whoever is doing this.”
With this most recent rash of robberies including at least 15 distinct incidents of either robbery or attempted robbery occurring within a five-block radius of the university since October, there seem to be many questions and few answers beyond warnings to take caution. An uneasiness surrounds the situation – students are going to continue to live in these areas and these incidents are in most cases directly affecting students.
Taking stock of the situation, dean of students Leanne Holland Brown explained that Laurier is not isolated from these sorts of circumstances.
“The challenge is that life happens outside of campus and as much as we sometimes are a bubble, we’re not a bubble,” she said. “Things happen close to and on campus and we need to make sure that we are aware and as careful as we can be. Beyond that I’m not sure what more we can do, really.”
Obviously this is not a unique situation to Laurier either, with many Ontario universities experiencing issues with areas that students live, often crammed in residential areas never designed with them in mind. Queen’s University in Kingston has a somewhat notorious “university district,” with regular break-ins accompanying the rowdy homecoming traditions that earned the university some unwanted attention in past years.
That said, speaking to Queen’s Alma Mater Society municipal affairs commissioner, David Sinkinson, seemed to underscore that Laurier and Waterloo are facing a particularly fierce blight. “Armed robbery would be a very difficult thing for us to deal with,” he said of Queen’s. “University towns deal with certain issues and thankfully that’s not one of ours.”
Holland Brown explained that inevitably issues will arise, only the severity varies. “You need to look at the incidents that are happening at universities across Ontario to recognize that it doesn’t matter where you are, if you are at a university that is a physical university in the midst of a city, there are always going to be challenges and issues that surface just by virtue of the community that is so close to the proximity of campus,” she said.
“The gravity of the situation changes depending on the campus but there isn’t a campus in Ontario, I think, that is exempt from safety issues.”
Caught in the middle
Jim and Ruth Facey have lived in Northdale since 1955 and describing the reported incidents from their Larch St. home, Ruth gestured up and down the street. “It’s been happening all around us.”
Jim, like many, struggled to put the pieces together. “This is new. I can’t follow that they would go all the way to armed robbery to get an iPod or something. I can see them breaking into jewelry stores to get [a lot of money], but what’s an iPod, a couple hundred dollars? There’s more to it than that, I think.”
The Faceys, along with their ‘security system’ – a 14-year-old dog – didn’t seem particularly troubled by the incidents as applying to them directly, but had other concerns. “We don’t like it, but I don’t feel nervous yet,” Jim said. “I probably wouldn’t walk around at three in the morning but we don’t feel nervous in the house.”
Their worry, shared with other long-time residents of the area, is tied to the status of the City of Waterloo’s land-use study of the area and status of their home and property as it remains in limbo, the city and developers trying to figure out what to do with the neighbourhood. “This is not a good situation for us,” Jim said. “I’m sure things like this aren’t helping property values.”
Ruth raised the issue of home invasions, which have occurred on both adjacent streets to Larch, as something that they are all too aware of. “Up until a few years ago we never used to lock the house – we do now,” she said.
Like Stensrud, fourth-year Laurier student John – who asked that his last name be withheld in print – was confronted with a gun near the gates of the university, in the area of Veterans’ Green at Hazel and University Avenue.
“It definitely changes my perception of [the area],” he said. “I’m used to walking home either after the bar or whenever but I view it as more dangerous now because there have been so many other muggings as well.”
What was particularly puzzling for John and others that spoke to The Cord was the fact that students, for one, aren’t likely to be carrying anything much more valuable than a cell phone at a given time. Also, especially when returning from the bar, they don’t often have much cash on them.
“I have no clue why this area is being targeted,” John said, “Maybe because there are so many students around, but when they took my wallet, I had five bucks in it.”
“That’s what pissed me off the most, they mugged me over five bucks.”
Waterloo Regional Police Service spokesperson Olaf Heinzel explained that the incidence of robbery has spiked across the region in recent months. “Since about August of last year, we’ve seen an increase across the region and I can’t say specifically to this area, but across the region we’re seen an increase in the types of personal robberies where items like cellphones have been targeted,” he said.
He confirmed that a number of detectives had been assigned to investigating the incidents nearby the university, which had several similarities, and several sources indicated that more officers than usual were likely patrolling the area.
Curran explained that the Special Constables, who have police powers on campus but limited powers in areas that fall outside, had been circulating through the affected areas as much as possible. “What I’m telling our people is to go down Hazel St. and all the side streets. The only problem is that if we see anything we can’t do anything because it’s off campus, if we see something we can get right on the phone to police though.”
“I think all we can really do is reassure the students that we are watching, we have a full compliment on duty, [and] we’re all patrolling along with WRPS,” he added.
“Use the safety tips and that’s the best you can do for right now. We are going to catch these people, it’s just a matter of time, and we don’t want to see anyone get hurt.”
Any time incidents of this nature are reported or the university sends out a safety notice to students, as occurred last week, Foot Patrol sees a spike in use, according to co-ordinator Chandler Jolliffe. “[Sunday] night we came in just under 50 walks. 50 walks any day of the week is a decently high number but to have that on a Sunday is about triple what we would normally get,” he said.
He noted that while the number of walks home given overall by Foot Patrol volunteers has increased and some progress has been made, a stigma still exists that prevents some males from using the service. “Although we see significantly, significantly less guys, we do still get guys that use the service,” he said. “We’re trying to get people to understand that we’re just here to get you home safe.”
However, perhaps not surprisingly, students’ paranoia after reported attacks tends to wane not long after.
“Our numbers shoot through the roof,” he said, “It tends to fade out though, which is understandable but probably a little concerning as well. “
“Students become really conscious of safety issues when something is happening but after a few weeks that safety consciousness fades off and they get back into old habits and may take fewer precautions.”
So, what now?
Because of the uncertainty surrounding many details of what has been occurring, police and Special Constables are urging anyone who overhears anything or has more information to come forward. “Police are investigating these, but we also need the help of the community to mobilize themselves as well and take reasonable precautions that will decrease their likelihood of becoming victims of crime,” Heinzel said.
Curran echoed these sentiments. “Someone that’s involved in these robberies is talking to someone and all we need is a tip to come in. You can give us a tip over the Campus Assist and it’s anonymous, so if someone knows someone knows something they can give it to us that way and we’ll act on the information.”
For students who have been impacted first-hand, the fact remains that where they live makes being vulnerable to these sorts of things sometimes inevitable.
“I’ve told people that have to walk through there to keep an eye out and, if they can, to just avoid the street in general,” Stensrud said.
“All you can do is just be vigilant.”