It took a while, but Tuesday night’s public meeting on city council measures to address chronic homelessness and enhance public safety in Barrie finally got a hearing.
Sitting as community safety committee, councillors heard criticism of their plans to deal with drug addiction, mental health problems, public safety, panhandling, shelter, counselling, feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, while spending as much as $825,000 on these measures during each of the next two years.
“There’s little to nothing here on these pages that will actually help end chronic homelessness,” local resident Michael Speers said of the measures. “What it does do, though, is attack our neighbours and some of the most vulnerable people in our community, and it represents a failure to properly improve the material conditions affecting them.”
Speers suggested cutting the annual Barrie Police Service budget by 10 per cent, or about $6 million, and using that money to help end chronic homelessness.
The city's measures to address homelessness were approved by council May 17, by direct motion, and included holding a public meeting. About 30 people spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting.
“I don’t have all the answers, but throwing more hate at a problem that was created by hate and greed is not the answer," said one woman, identified as Ash P. "Treating it with love and support is the only way for us all to heal and be safe.
"I challenge each and every one of you to spend some time on the streets," she added. “Come out with us for outreach, come out and help with breakfast. Meet the rest of the community you’re paid to help and make things better for, the ones you’ve neglected and pushed to the side. How can you even think of passing a bylaw that makes it illegal to help people, illegal to give out food to anyone in need? It’s cruel and inhumane.”
Amy Pauley, community minister at Trinity and St. Margaret’s Anglican churches, agreed.
“It just seems like you want to stop helping people to make them go away,” she said. “I always wonder where you are going to put people when you kick them out of their tents.”
Angela Vos, a local health-care worker, rejected the measures outright. “It’s a violation of our human rights,” she said.
“I want to thank council for identifying the issue, whether we are in support of the measures or not,” said Stefan Aust. “We have struck a nerve with the citizens.”
The first half of Tuesday’s public meeting had speakers expressing concerns with not only homelessness, but crime, drugs and public safety.
Barry Mills has lived for 22 years near Barrie City Hall and spoke about drug deals and vehicle break-ins.
“I no longer feel safe walking my own street,” he said. “We do pay taxes and I don’t think we are necessarily being treated properly.”
“The downtown area is no longer safe and I feel we all have the right to feel safe,” said Linda Jeffrey, another longtime downtown resident.
“I don’t feel safe. I barricade myself in my house,” said Heather Sparks, also a downtown resident. “We are continuously harassed for cigarettes, food.
“I want to know what can be done," she added. "What can we do as a community so people have a place to live?”
Peter Preenan has lived in downtown Barrie for a decade.
“I have a video of a guy stealing my door-bell camera,” he said. “When I come home, something is always missing.”
But Speers said he didn’t like the stories.
“The way some of the people experiencing homelessness in our city, as has been described tonight, is quite frankly disgusting,” he said. “They’re not panhandlers, they’re not loiterers, they’re not people we should be afraid of. We need to remember that they’re our neighbours and our friends.”
Chris Gerrard, of the Queen's Hotel, has worked in downtown Barrie for 36 years.
“All homeless people aren’t bad — there is a bad element, they’re lawless,” he said. “We pick up 45 needles a week, but I am proud of the downtown.
"We need more police officers, a presence, and people who follow the law," Gerrard added.
Since it was passed last spring, council’s measures to address chronic homelessness and enhance public safety have been somewhat altered.
In late June, council backed off proposed changes to Barrie’s parks use and nuisance bylaws for the homeless and hungry, after the city received a letter from the Busby Centre saying it would stop handing out food and supplies along Barrie’s waterfront at the Spirit Catcher parking lot and instead move these outreach services to other property.
City staff were nonetheless directed by council to clean up what’s considered outdated language in the existing parks use and nuisance bylaws. They are being reviewed in the context of other municipalities’ bylaws, and the language will be updated.
Council was considering amending the city’s parks use bylaw so that a person is not to provide free food, clothing, tents, tarps or items used as shelter or to assist with sleeping or protection from the elements, to members of the public at any public park unless authorized by the city. This was also to apply to Barrie’s waterfront parks and off-leash dog parks, along with Memorial Square and Meridian Place.
In July, the Gilbert Centre was awarded the contract to operate a seasonal cooling centre in Barrie for homeless residents, the result of an equal partnership between the County of Simcoe and the City of Barrie. Located in the Barrie By The Bay building, at 80 Bradford St., Suite 525, it was scheduled to operate 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily until Sept. 15.
Also in July, the city announced an agreement with Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General to use a shuttle service to allow those released from Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC) in Penetanguishene to get closer to home, or where they lived before spending time behind bars.
Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall has said the regular drop-off in Barrie of recently released prisoners puts additional pressures on the city’s social service agencies and he said the city doesn’t have the resources in place to support those brought to Barrie from prison on a regular basis.
The county retained One Community Solutions, an alternative security company, to undertake a pilot program for downtown Barrie outreach with marginalized and vulnerable residents and local businesses. It conducted walking patrols in teams of two, with two shifts – one from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the other from 4 p.m. until midnight. Its members wore yellow vests with identification on them.
One Community Solutions staff worked with people who may be experiencing homelessness, opioid/drug/alcohol addiction and those suffering from mental health challenges in a compassionate way.
The County of Simcoe is the designated service manager for Barrie, under provincial law. The county is responsible for planning, funding and managing social housing programs and homelessness services. While city council can encourage and facilitate the provisions of affordable housing through initiatives, programs and policies, the city does not provide nor manage housing.
“We don’t provide services, so it’s important to recognize that,” said Michael Prowse, the city’s chief administrative officer.
Before Tuesday’s public meeting, Prowse made a presentation to committee regarding the city’s efforts to address chronic homelessness in Barrie, and how the the direction given by council was working.
Among the highlights was the city providing $20,000 to Elizabeth Fry Society and John Howard Society for family and support group reunification.
The county has secured an operator of the 20 Rose St. modular units in Barrie as a temporary shelter during winter 2023-24 and is securing an agreement for additional warming centre services in Barrie – both funded through a partnership between the city and county.
The city will provide funding to Barrie’s Salvation Army to acknowledge the lunch program the organization ran during the pandemic and to assist with fall campaigns.
Signs are to be placed on city off-ramps at Highway 400 to discourage panhandling, or financial support of it, and instead encourage donations to local social service agencies. An education campaign will be launched in late September to encourage residents to give money to organizations instead of panhandlers.
Council has also pledged to build 23,000 homes to help meet the provincial housing target, 1.5 million more homes by 2030. The city has already approved 17,000 units, and council has identified several parcels of city-owned land for possible sale. It’s expected that this additional land supply could help create additional housing to help address the supply crisis in Barrie, Prowse said in his presentation.
“It does feel like homelessness has been reduced to a check list and most of the list has been checked off,” said Jennifer van Gennip, a member of the Barrie Housing and Homelessness Justice Network.