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Does city's new homelessness plan infringe on religious beliefs?

'We have a gospel call to care for the vulnerable in our community,' says local minister; Barrie Homelessness and Housing Justice Network holding protest Wednesday at city hall
panhandler poverty stock
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Barrie councillors should expect a quiet earful of opposition Wednesday night to their approved motion addressing chronic homelessness and enhancing public safety.

The Barrie Homelessness and Housing Justice Network (BHHJN) says it's planning a peaceful protest outside Barrie City Hall before the general committee meeting, then moving it inside to the Council Chambers. 

Grace United Church's Rev. Susan Eagle, a member of the network, said she expects people from all walks of life and perspectives to attend.

“It’s to give voice to concern about the draconian measures in this motion, to urge the city council to walk it back and follow a process of consulting the public, getting a staff report, look at if there is duplication of some things (services),” she said. “A motion without notice should be used as rarely as possible.”

Approved May 17 by direct council motion in an 11-0 recorded vote, the motion also contains measures to deal with drug addiction, mental health, panhandling, shelter, counselling and feeding the hungry. It commits as much as $825,000 to these measures during each of the next two years, but asks for funding from other levels of government as well.

Eagle and others have voiced opposition to these measures, however.

“It’s pretty clear that the point of this motion is to try and eliminate homeless people from the city, to get them to leave,” she said, mentioning family reunification measures and shuttle services.

“That’s to transport people out of the city or prevent them coming into the city in the first place,” Eagle added. “The prohibition on distribution of tents, food, camping, signs on ramps to discourage the public from providing any care to people on the streets. That is also to discourage them from staying in the city.”

As minister of Grace United Church, Eagle has another problem with the motion.

“We have a gospel call to care for the vulnerable in our community which has roots in Christian and Jewish and in Muslim law, religious law,” she told BarrieToday. “Those three faiths all together have the same provision to care for the vulnerable in our midst and in our community.

“So is the city council asking us to go against our own spiritual conscience and not to care for people in our midst?” Eagle asked. “That is of great concern to me, that they would not only direct the churches, but individuals who have that as a faith base, that we are not to care for the vulnerable in our midst.”

Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall said he plans to speak with church officials in the near future.

“Council is excited and extremely appreciative that Grace United Church is passionate about supporting vulnerable individuals in our community,” he said. “In our discussions with local social service agencies, locations for distribution of food, shelter and referral of services were at the top of the list for services needed. I look forward to conversations with Grace United Church on this subject, and how we can work together to care for the vulnerable in our community while ensuring safe parks for our children.

“Our public servants (city staff) are looking at all different ways to provide support to vulnerable citizens in our community, which includes an investment to the tune of $1.65 million and we would welcome any ideas and opportunities identified by all faith groups including Grace United Church, as they do incredible work," the mayor added. 

Eagle was a London city councillor for 13 years before moving to Barrie in 2010, so she knows a thing or two about motions without notice, when they should be used and when they should not.

“A motion without notice, as I understand it, is supposed to deal with something of a crisis or emergency nature,” she said. “I’ve had a look at the bylaw and that’s not spelled out right now, but that’s been the understanding in conversations I’ve had with municipal councillors in the past.

“It means you’re jumping over any effort to do any due diligence or to have staff reports or to consult the community," Eagle added. 

But Nuttall said that’s not the case.

“The motion calls for both staff to report back and for the public meeting to take place on homelessness and public safety,” he said. “Consultation and discussions with our social services and volunteer organizations have been taking place for months on this subject. 

“Barrie city council has approved a wide range of approaches that will be included in future agendas, alongside the formal consultation process outlined in the motion for the public meeting,” Nuttall said. “The motion empowers our public servants to determine which approaches are best and report back with steps forward.”

But Eagle 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.

“There should be a process where councillors themselves do some due diligence and that’s very hard to do on a motion without notice,” she said. “Perhaps it didn’t violate their policy; it certainly was a strange procedure when it seemed unnecessary.”

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

The motion does not lack detail.

Michael Prowse, the city’s chief administrative officer, has been given the task of implementing this motion, and is to consider and/or utilize a number of measures 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 funds 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.

This motion was approved May 17 by Barrie city council and is not on Wednesday’s general committee agenda.