By Anna Wdowczyk
Ryerson University and the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) have implemented various supports for those affected by the electrical fire at Neill-Wycik Co-operative College.
The three-alarm electrical fire happened on the evening of Nov. 2. The fire started on the second floor and spread to other parts of the building. Police officers and fire crews arrived just before 11 p.m. that night. Although they successfully put out the fire, the building still has damages that haven’t been resolved.
Neill-Wycik isn’t a Ryerson residence building, but their website states it’s home to over 750 students. This includes current Ryerson students and alumni.
Building residents have been affected to varying degrees, so Ryerson has been deciding on how to help each student on a “case-by-case basis,” according to Jen McMillen, vice-provost, students.
“The RSU has taken a lot of weight off our shoulders”
Some individuals, like Ryerson graduate Idi Qinami, had to find new places to live.
Qinami used to bounce back and forth between living in Neill-Wycik and with his parents in Etobicoke. Now, he has no choice but to stay with his parents “while [Neill-Wycik is] fixing everything.”
He said the situation is an “inconvenience,” but he’s fortunate enough to have family support during the emergency.
“I’m not affected as much as other people who don’t have their parents so close,” Qinami said.
For current students that needed another place to stay, temporary accommodations were made available in residence, according to Ryerson’s website.
McMillen said the highest number of fire victims living in residence at once was 58. The accommodation was intended to only last for a week, but McMillen said they added a one-week-long extension for students who didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Students received access to temporary meal plans during their stay as well.
Some Wycik residents have also been struggling to stay on top of school work as the building’s wi-fi has been an issue since the fire. Josh Graham, a Neill-Wycik coordinator, said a “fiber optic connection” problem in the building’s basement has led to unstable internet access.
Since many students study online now, this issue drove a lot of residents to move away.
Students who stayed downtown but didn’t have anywhere to study were directed to the Sheldon & Tracy Levy Student Learning Centre (SLC) so they could “have a safe place to go where they could access wifi,” according to McMillen.
On Nov. 23, the SLC closed due to increased lockdown measures in Toronto. The space is “available to those in extenuating circumstances who can attest to the essential need to study on campus,” according to the building’s website.
Students have also been able to borrow the university’s laptops for completing work.
Those that find themselves struggling financially may receive emergency funding. The RSU established the Neill-Wycik Emergency Relief Grant to aid students who were impacted by the fire.
The grant was announced on social media and offers qualifying students with up to $400, according to the form. The form also says it’s “a one-time solution,” so students won’t be able to access it “on an ongoing basis.”
“I know that it’s a lot of money that’s being made available for our members, so we’re really grateful to the Ryerson Students’ Union for that,” said Graham.
Graham added that the RSU has “taken a lot of weight off of our shoulders,” because he doesn’t think the building is able to match that level of funding.
Grant applications closed on Nov. 14. Eligible individuals include RSU members, full-time students and residents of Neill-Wycik Co-operative Housing. These students must have “faced difficulties due to the recent fire incident.”
The form states the amount of funding per student depends on personal circumstances and the volume of applications.
Financial support has also been offered to some students by the university itself. McMillen said some residents were evacuated without important materials, like phones and wallets, so the school was able to cover a few of their expenses right after the fire.
Food vouchers were also distributed for those who didn’t know where they would get their next meal. McMillen said one of Ryerson’s partners, Salad King, provided email vouchers immediately. The university also had some grocery carts available for students to combat food insecurity.
Neill-Wycik also started their own virtual fundraiser on gofundme.com. They’ve surpassed their goal of raising $8,000 by more than $1,000 and counting.
Graham said this fundraiser is important because residents are struggling for various reasons: some don’t have rent insurance, many need constant wifi access for online learning and others were already “financially vulnerable” before the fire.
The proceeds will go directly to building residents. According to the fundraiser webpage, every donation “could mean the difference between having food and safety for a very large number of people.”
Ryerson acknowledged on their website that students affected by the fire may have lower attendance and limited time for completing their work. Affected students can ask their instructors or departments for accommodations. McMillen said the university has tried to help students with navigating tough conversations about extensions from faculty.
Concerns expressed in building management and maintenance
When the fire happened, students were asked to evacuate the building immediately. The university found out about the fire the night it happened when some students walked into residence looking for help on Nov. 2, according to McMillen. Staff greeted these students and helped them figure out what to do next given the emergency situation.
The next morning, McMillen said they started looking for all Ryerson students who were affected by the fire. They called all students who identified Neill-Wycik as their place of residence in their records, reaching out to over 100 students. To ensure no one was excluded, they put out various social media posts to let everyone know help is available at the university.
McMillen said the university immediately took on a “multi-pronged approach” to help students “figure out what the next steps would be.” This meant looking at their indivudual circumstances.
For example, some students couldn’t benefit from living in residence temporarily since they moved hours away from campus to live with parents. But they had other unmet needs, so McMillen said the university tried to focus on seeing what they could do to help each individual.
As of now, McMillen said “there is some damage to the building and ongoing electrical issues.”
She added that the main problems are power and water issues, since the building’s power is produced by a generator.
Another limitation is that only the west stairs of the buildings can be used right now.
According to McMillen, students who are using temporary residence spaces in light of these challenges won’t be charged. She adds that additional students on campus don’t compromise anyone’s safety because the university had some empty spots to begin with.
As most emergency resources are currently temporary, McMillen said Ryerson is working with the City of Toronto to come up with “longer-term planning.”
Graham said the fire has been difficult to cope with because some residents were already suffering financially due to COVID-19. Now, there are several residents who face food insecurity since the fire has made things worse for them.
The pandemic is like “the crisis behind the crisis,” said Graham.
Graham confirmed there were other electrical issues at Neill-Wycik over the years. But he said it hasn’t been found that those past issues had any correlation with the cause of the fire.
Cory Swick, a Ryerson chemical engineering graduate and resident of Neill-Wycik for roughly 25 years, said he’s worried about his “personal safety” in his “own home,” and expressed concerns in building management and maintenance.
“The sense of community might be a little stronger now”
Nonetheless, Swick acknowledges “it could’ve been way, way worse,” and that “we’re lucky that no people or pets were injured or far worse.”
Similarly, Qinami also said he found a positive way to look at the situation. “I think the sense of community might be a little stronger now because of what happened.”
“There’s a lot of information going around and everyone’s just trying to help each other out,” Qinami said.
For some, this means communicating a lot on social media. He said a lot of “people are more active on the Facebook group.”
“When events like this happen, it kind of brings people closer together because we all share the same problem.”