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'Appalled': Dozens protest homelessness plan outside city hall

'I am ashamed of them (Barrie councillors). That’s not the council I elected,' says resident; Council had left the chambers before protesters arrived

There were storm clouds on a sunny, warm Wednesday evening outside and inside Barrie City Hall.

More than 100 people protested city council’s approved May 17 motion addressing chronic homelessness and public safety, then came inside to watch the general committee meeting.

It lasted nine minutes, all 13 motions passed on consent, meaning there was no discussion. It was all finished, and the councillors gone, before about 50 protesters arrived and began yelling at the empty council table. Some left their signs in the council chamber.

Approved by direct council motion, by an 11-0 recorded vote, the controversial motion also contains measures to deal with drug addiction, mental health, a panhandling ban, shelter, counselling, limiting camping in city parks, and feeding the hungry.

“I’m appalled at the decision our council made,” said Rita Golds-Nikolic of Barrie. “I believe there should be a democratic process. I am ashamed of them (Barrie councillors). That’s not the council I elected.”

Jo-Anne Flood, who sits on the Busby Centre’s board, said the motion doesn’t work for her, either.

“I have a heart for the homeless. It was very disappointing to see the council motion that passed,” she said. “We need to do more for the homeless. Barrie has always been a city with a heart, so it’s very disappointing.”

Barrie’s Homelessness and Housing Justice Network (BHHJN) organized Wednesday evening’s protest.

“Whether we wear pearls or backpacks, we are all vulnerable,” said Anne Bergman, who volunteers with Ryan’s Hope. “It’s part of our shared connection.

“This motion is based in fear, not in hope. The city council motion prevents good humans from being kind to each other. I want our city council to treat people with dignity,” Bergman added.

Rev. Susan Eagle of Grace United Church, a member of BHHJN, said the motion’s measures are designed to drive homeless people from Barrie and are contrary to “a gospel call” to care for vulnerable people, such as the homeless, a call which which has roots in Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious law.

Eagle has wondered aloud if city council is asking people to go against their own spiritual conscience and not to care for people in the community. She expected the protest to attract a wide range of people.

“If you push people, they push back. If you push harder, they push back harder,” said Andrew Norton of Christian Island, later seen carrying a Communist Party of Canada flag.

Paul Daigle of Barrie, who goes to the Gilbert Centre, said the rally worked.

“Today is a powerful protest. What’s happening right now is the discrimination of homeless people. That is not right,” he said. 

Protesters carried signs saying ‘Survival is Not a Crime’, “Our Kindness will Not be Criminalized’ and ‘Stop the War on the Poor’.

Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall did not address the protesters, but did have a comment on the protest.

“I think people care about our community, they care about the vulnerable in our community and while there may be some disagreement on how best to work to reduce the poverty in Barrie, overall it’s a good thing to see people engaged, wanting to help those who are less fortunate,” he said.

“And certainly I hope that this engagement continues through the process to come up with what will be, eventually, a considerable investment, in finances and time, and hopefully moving towards helping those who are vulnerable in our community," the mayor added. 

Nuttall said Wednesday wasn’t about him addressing the protesters.

“They have the freedom of speech, we live in a beautiful country, we’re able to stand up and say what we believe, and what we think, and I love that,” he said. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather live.

"Whether we disagree on this exact item or not, isn’t necessarily the determinant," Nuttall added. "I think it’s incredibly important that individuals are able to express what they believe and do it in a safe and meaningful way.”   

Eagle was a London city councillor for 13 years before moving to Barrie in 2010. She has noted $1.6 million has been committed with no staff report and no documentation showing exactly how that money would be spent, or even if some of the measures are doable.

Eagle has said she wondered, at the May 17 council meeting, why no councillor asked that it be referred back to staff for a report.

This motion was not on Wednesday night’s general committee agenda.

It gives Michael Prowse, the city’s chief administrative officer, the task of implementing these measures and he is to consider and/or utilize a number of ways to address chronic homelessness, and enhance Barrie’s public safety.

Ontario government funding will be requested for additional financial support for a rapid access addiction medicine clinic, and to provide more beds and to increase the hours of operation or provide for a similar organization that gives long-term counselling and treatment.

The province will be asked to approve funding for a family reunification fund for transportation costs and to help reunite individuals with families or support groups, and pay for operation of a shuttle service for individuals released from Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC) in Penetanguishene.

A cooling and warming centre for at-risk individuals funding is requested, along with money for daily meal programs currently being offered on public land and in city parks, for the Salvation Army or similar organizations to support a lunch program and for food security programs through agencies to reduce the needs associated with panhandling.

Permanent funding from the province and the County of Simcoe is requested for the county’s mobile outreach pilot program in downtown Barrie — if it’s deemed to be successful by the city and the county.

Changes are planned to Barrie’s bylaws, protocols and processes to prohibit the use or distribution of tents or tarps in city parks or on public land without a permit, to prohibit the distribution of food and grocery products in public spaces without a permit and to reduce the time required to address camping in parks and the storage of goods in parks or public places.

There will be methods to prohibit payment to panhandlers on city streets, intersections and highway ramps, along with placing signs on city off-ramps to discourage panhandling or financial support for panhandlers, and encourage donations to the local social service agencies instead.

The city will work with the county and the province on ways to build more supportive housing for community members experiencing adverse mental health or addictions. Supportive housing is a combination of affordable housing with intensive and trauma-informed co-ordinated services to help people struggling with chronic physical and mental health issues to maintain stable housing and receive appropriate health care.

The city will also appeal to the county for funding to help individuals make the transition from unemployment to employment, through training opportunities.

A public meeting will be scheduled at community safety committee about chronic homelessness, addictions and mental health supports in Barrie.

City staff will also apply for any provincial or federal funding available to support the action plan.

Funding to $825,000 annually for two years will be available from the city’s re-investment reserve to help pay for these initiatives, as required. This reserve contains about $6 million right now. Its source is dividends from Alectra (Barrie is a part-owner), funds which flow through Barrie Hydro Holdings and then into the re-investment reserve. 

If necessary, Prowse is authorized to waive the city’s purchasing bylaw to award any items or services required to undertake the plan’s actions. He will also provide quarterly updates to the community safety committee regarding the effectiveness of the options undertaken from these actions