City councillors are painting a grim picture of Barrie’s chronic homelessness in explaining why a social action plan, approved Wednesday night, is so necessary.
It addresses drug addiction, mental health, public safety, panhandling, shelter, counselling and feeding the hungry, along with housing the homeless, while committing as much as $825,000 to these measures during each of the next two years.
Stark examples of the need for these measures came from councillors last night.
“Just this past weekend, several of us were down on the waterfront at an event and we witnessed first-hand what’s going on and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it, unfortunately,” said Coun. Gary Harvey, who works in law enforcement. “Obviously certain drugs are legal nowadays, so sitting there with a bong is not against the law anymore, but when you’ve got people sitting off to the side and they’re cooking drugs, ready to use needles and you’ve got kids in parks right nearby, we’ve got a problem. Because I don’t think any of us should ever say that that’s acceptable.”
“The Barrie I remember is the Barrie that my parents immigrated to, this country, and chose to raise me in,” said Coun. Sergio Morales. “It didn’t have me in fear of having my car broken into.”
“We’re all hearing stories, I think too many stories, stories from people who are taking their dogs for walks in our city parks and ending up with needles in paws,” said Coun. Bryn Hamilton. “Stories from parents whose teenagers are accessing trails within public spaces and that are being approached by people within encampments and getting lured into tents.
“We’ve heard first-hand from businesses that are shutting down due to decreased foot traffic and a perceived fear in our downtown core,” she added. “We’re hearing stories, more and more stories, of trespassing, home invasion, vandalism, aggressive behaviour in public spaces, overdosing on front lawns, stabbings, the list goes on.”
On the big screens in the Council Chambers, Mayor Alex Nuttall showed images of garbage, litter and outdoor living arrangements in Sunnidale Park from two or three weeks ago.
“I don’t want to get too alarmist here, but … this is Sunnidale Park. This is Sunnidale Park, the former golf club turned into a community park,” he said. “This is on the trails that I used to run with my son and daughter while they were in strollers. And that’s what it’s turned into.”
Hamilton, elected to council last October in Ward 10, says the situation has been an eye-opener for her.
“We have to be aware of some of the effects that chronic homelessness is having on our community and on our residents at large,” she said. “I think being in this (council) seat for many of us has created a new level of awareness in terms of how the safety and the reasonable enjoyment of city assets (such as parks) is being impacted by some of the behaviour attributed to segments of the homeless population.”
The motion council passed says that Michael Prowse, the city’s chief administrative officer (CAO), consider and/or utilize several 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 or provide for a similar organization that gives long-term counselling and treatment.
The province will 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.
“The funding is for helping individuals who are being released get back to where there is some support for them,” Nuttall said. “That’s a great thing, family reunification.”
Funding for a cooling and warming centre for at-risk individuals is also requested, as is providing daily meal programs that are currently being offered on public land and in city parks during multiple years, funding to 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.
“A cooling and warming centre, it was the one common thing we hear from every single social service,” Nuttall said, mentioning the Elizabeth Fry Society, the John Howard Society and the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness. “We need something and somewhere for folks to go.”
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 it’s 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 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, and instead encourage donations to the local social service agencies.
“We’re spending a potential $825,000 per year over two years and we’re creating a message and a standard that says please give to social services … who have social workers, who have mental health professionals, who have addictions professionals, so that they can help the people in our community,” Nuttall said.
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 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 dividends from Alectra (of which Barrie is a part-owner), 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.
“We’re all going to get complaints from people in the next hour, OK, if you’re not already getting them,” Nuttall said Wednesday night. “And the complaints will be far and wide. You’re spending too much money on this, you’re not spending enough. There’s not enough teeth in it, why are you doing that.”
He said people should bring their complaints and concerns to the as-yet-unscheduled public meeting of the community safety committee.