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'Complex problem': Council takes aim at chronic homelessness

New plan not only addresses drug addiction, mental health, public safety and panhandling, but also commits as much as $825,000 over next two years
A person's belongings are tucked into a store entrance in downtown Barrie.

A wide-ranging social action plan addressing Barrie’s chronic homelessness — everything from feeding to sheltering to counselling people — was approved by city council Wednesday night.

By direct motion, council unanimously got behind a plan which not only addresses drug addiction, mental health, public safety and panhandling, but also commits as much as $825,000 to these initiatives in each of the next two years.

“I don’t think any of us are surprised by the fact that we are dealing with a chronic homelessness crisis in Barrie,” said Coun. Bryn Hamilton. “In part this is due to a lack of affordable housing. The very real reality is that right now we have 350 to 400 individuals within our city limits that identify themselves as homeless.

“Seventy to 80 per cent of those individuals that are unhoused attribute this to being due to the fact that they suffer from mental health, addiction issues and or substance abuse," she added. “We know we’ve got to start taking a harder look at how we are addressing chronic homelessness in Barrie, but also more importantly what we’re doing to treat the root causes of chronic homelessness.”

Every member of city council spoke to the motion.

“What we are doing is creating space to try things. Some of them are going to work, some of them are going to fail,” said Mayor Alex Nuttall. “What we are approving tonight is not a definitive solution. It’s not going to change anything overnight.

“It is our job to balance all of these interests, or we are failing as a city, failing as a council," he added. 

“It’s not just unhoused people (who are the problem),” said Coun. Amy Courser, who had reservations about the motion but voted for it. “We are not social workers, we are not qualified to make these sort of decisions.”

“Does this solve the problem? Of course it doesn’t,” said Coun. Jim Harris. “But I think the is a step in investing in some real items to help people.”

The motion says that Michael Prowse, the city’s chief administrative officer (CAO), consider or utilize options to address chronic homelessness, and enhance public safety, in Barrie. This will include requesting funding from the Ontario government for additional financial support for a rapid access addiction medicine clinic, and to provide more beds and to increase the hours of operation for a similar organization that provides long-term counselling and treatment.

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

Also funding for a cooling and warming centre for at-risk individuals is requested, as in providing daily meal programs that are currently being offered on public land and in city parks for multiple years, 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 will be requested from the province and the County of Simcoe for the county’s mobile outreach pilot program in downtown Barrie if deemed to be successful by the city and the county.

There will also be changes to the city’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 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 the payments to panhandlers on city streets, intersections and highway ramps, along with placing signs on city off-ramps to discourage panhandling or financial support, 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.

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

A public meeting will be scheduled at community safety committee regarding 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.

But funding of as much as $825,000 annually for two years will be available from the city’s re-investment reserve to help fund these initiatives, as required.

This reserve contains about $6 million right now. Its source is Alectra dividends, through Barrie Hydro Holdings and then into the re-investment reserve. 

If necessary, the CAO is authorized to waive the city’s purchasing bylaw to award any items or services required to undertake the plan’s actions.

Prowse will also provide quarterly updates to the community safety committee regarding the effectiveness of the options undertaken from these actions.

“This motion addresses all the things we can do,” said Coun. Craig Nixon. “It is not the perfect solution … but I believe we found a balance.”

“This is a complex problem,” said Coun. Clare Riepma. “If we had an easy answer, we would have had it long ago.”

“We have to do something,” said Coun. Gary Harvey. “I’ve been here for 24 years and it has taken a turn for the worse.”

“This is not the same Barrie I grew up in,” said Coun. Sergio Morales. “The Barrie I grew up in didn’t have an on- and off-ramp on the highway, with people panhandling.”

Deputy Mayor Robert Thomson said it’s sometimes necessary to find solutions that are uncomfortable.

“What we are doing is not working,” he said. “It’s escalating in a negative way.”

This direct motion passed by a recorded vote of 11-0 and is now city policy.