ast Friday a fire tore into the heart of Toronto's harm reduction community.
Flames consumed garbage cans and a stairway on the outside of 10 Trinity Square before breaching an exterior wall. Firefighters arrived in time to save the historic building and most of its contents, but smoke and water damage were extensive.
No one was injured in the initial blaze, but the scars of the burn cut deeply into some of Toronto's most underserved and stigmatized demographics.
The house at 10 Trinity Square (known as Building 10) made of yellow brick and barely three stories tall, does little to betray the life-saving work that happens within its walls. The second floor and attic are home to Maggie's Toronto, a by-and-for sex workers’ organization with wraparound support and resources for sex workers throughout the GTA.
The offices of Trinity Community Hub (known as Unity Kitchen until recently) are on the main floor. Trinity has provided food, clothing and other donations to people in need since the onset of the pandemic. At their busiest, they give out hundreds of meals in a single day.
In the basement of Building 10 are the offices of the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) which has been fighting to reduce Toronto's devastating impacts on migratory bird populations for over 30 years. Building 10, along with Scadding House (Building 6), and The Church of the Holy Trinity have fostered generations of empathy and justice-based advocacy and change in Toronto. The people who work within these walls are no strangers to tribulations and threats.
With every passing year, Trinity Square is more of an anomaly in the landscape of Toronto’s Yonge-Queen-Bay-Dundas block. Encircled by Canada’s Financial District, Toronto City Hall, municipal and provincial courthouses, Yonge-Dundas Square, and the Eaton Centre mall, the square is a quiet oasis of defiance against an onslaught of gentrification, authority and consumption on all sides. From the roofs of the big bank and development towers to the subterranean delivery truck tunnels that rumble its foundation, the Church of the Holy Trinity is a reckoning contrast to the spit-shined heart of a metropolis that would sooner forget its problems.
The fact that Trinity Square wasn't swallowed up by development and remains intact today can largely be linked to its history of progressive, spirited organizing.
The Church of the Holy Trinity was completed in 1847 as a protest against private and reserved pews. At the time, all of the churches in Toronto rented their pews for income. During the 1930s Depression, the church became known as the home of "social gospel," which sought to apply moral theology to issues of social justice.
In the 1960s the church became a space for social activists to grow the sentiment for urban reform and a safe-haven for Vietnam war resisters. The church also championed equal rights for women and 2SLGBTQ+ persons and has sponsored countless refugees over the years. More recently, Holy Trinity has been deeply involved in harm reduction advocacy for street-involved persons and is the home of the Toronto Homeless Memorial. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Holy Trinity focused their resources toward providing food to people in need — the origin of Unity Kitchen, now the Trinity Community Hub.
As news broke of the fire on Friday night, Rev. Pamela Trondson made her way to Trinity Square with Parish Administrator Margot Linken. "I was shocked when we walked in the door. There were charred bits in the door area and floors with ash and water in some places — a lot of destruction. We went through the building. There were windows smashed out, smoke and chemical smell in the air — just very sad to see."
Because they couldn't hire a security guard on such short notice, Trondson and Linken stayed the night inside the heavily damaged building to protect it. "The door of course was smashed and we were sort-of security," said Trondson.
Toronto Fire, Toronto Police and the Fire Marshal's office all confirmed that while the cause of the fire remains unknown, there is currently no investigation into the possibility of arson. Trondson said, "when the policeman asked me [about the possibility of arson] I was kind of shocked by it. I hadn't thought of it and I said I hope people like us. We're doing good work here."
While the recent fire appears to have been an accident, there have been past incidents of targeted acts of arson against residents of Trinity Square.
One particularly disturbing episode unfolded on an evening in November 2020 when two or three unidentified white men threw paving stones onto a tent that belonged to three Indigenous women. The men then piled flammable material on top and lit it on fire. The tent and contents were destroyed, but no one was injured.
“A church doesn’t get the same kinds of threats as a sex worker organization does,” said Ellie Ade Kur, Executive Director for Maggie’s Toronto. "I wouldn't want to speculate or anything, but I will say that we regularly get threats [telling us] to shut down."
"We moved here in March. We did a major renno all through May to June," said Ade Kur. Having the new office allowed Maggie’s to expand their capacity to help and empower sex workers all over the GTA. "We finally had a therapy room. We finally had enough space for our staff and a closet to store our harm reduction supplies,” continued Ade Kur.
“This was the space where we started doing case management for sex workers. There isn't a case management program run by and for sex workers anywhere else in North America. We started doing parenting programs for sex workers. We had our own therapy room and legal accompaniments. I know that will continue, but this is definitely a setback."
About the impact on Maggie's staff and services, Ade Kur said, "we're going to give our folks a week and a little bit to take everything in. People put a lot of themselves into their programs here so they need time to grieve."
For Paloma Plant, co-founder and Program Coordinator of FLAP, the fire could not have come at a worse time. With the fall bird migration in its beginning stages, FLAP volunteers are spending most of their energy triaging migratory birds injured in building strikes all around Toronto. They fulfill an essential role in saving birds before they succumb to injuries or are picked up by predators. After being assessed at the FLAP office, the injured birds are transported to a wildlife rehabilitation centre in Downsview Park.
"Not being able to get in there right now is just very brutal at this time of year for us," said Plant. "It will impact our ability to reach out to people and it's definitely impacted our ability to take in birds."
In addition to helping injured birds, an important part of FLAP's advocacy is to catalog birds killed by building strikes. According to the Global Bird Collision Mapper , between 25 million and 42 million migratory birds are killed by building strikes in Canada annually.
Each year FLAP volunteers collect and freeze 2500-5000 deceased birds which are then displayed at Feather Friendly in Mississauga to help raise public awareness of the need for bird-friendly buildings. Most of those displayed birds are stored for a period of time at the FLAP office in Building 10.
"We conduct all our in-person work from there and it's where we store everything... It's our life," said Plant.
Trinity Community Hub was planning to reopen next week after a month's hiatus brought on by financial stress and a staff shortage.
According to Elizabeth Cummings, the Open Hours Programs Coordinator at Trinity Community Hub, "one of the issues that we're running into now is that we have transitioned from the COVID crisis, which had lots of grants and funding opportunities, relatively speaking, to a cost of living crisis that is not seeing that same level of engagement."
While Trinity Community Hub, Maggie's and FLAP may seem like an unusual set of roommates, they are all connected by a deep and unwavering desire to help, heal and empower. After devoting themselves to helping others for so long, all three organizations together are appealing to the public to donate toward their rebuilding efforts.
As the smoke smell is filtered from Building 10, the donations and harm reduction supplies washed and the furniture cleaned, there is no doubt that Maggie’s, FLAP and Trinity Community Hub will resume offering services as soon as they are able to.
For many of the staff and volunteers, the drive to help anyone in need is in their DNA. Because of that, some services continue outside of official open hours and programming. As Cummings put it, “you can't not support people in crisis when they cross your path."