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'Shocked': Councillors react to bus threats around homeless plan

'Like any motion, they are only considered for repeal or reconsideration based on new evidence or facts to support. Not threats,' says downtown councillor

Some Barrie councillors are bristling at a threat to send Ontario’s homeless people to their doors if new, controversial city policies addressing chronic homelessness and enhanced pubic safety aren’t reconsidered and repealed.

Barrie Express Bus — an anonymous group with no names provided — sent all councillors a letter saying it would use public bus networks, private transportation and charter coach transportation to send the homeless directly to council members’ homes if there’s no policy change. Digital advertising would also be purchased, laying the blame for the increased homeless presence on city council.

BarrieToday contacted members of city council for a response to the recent letter.

Ward 2 Coun. Craig Nixon, who represents the city's downtown area, said it doesn’t work that way with council policy.

“Like any motion, they are only considered for repeal or reconsideration based on new evidence or facts to support. Not threats,” he told BarrieToday. “What was mentioned (busing the homeless to councillors’ doors) would be a very challenging endeavour, not the least of which logistically.”

“I was shocked a self-described advocacy group would take this approach,” said Ward 8 Coun. Jim Harris. 

On May 17 by direct motion, council unanimously passed a wide-ranging motion with measures to deal with drug addiction, mental health, public safety, panhandling, shelter, counselling and feeding the hungry, along with housing the homeless. As much as $825,000 is committed to these measures during each of the next two years.

City bylaws, protocols and processes could be changed to prohibit the use or distribution of tents or tarps in Barrie’s 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 would also be methods to prohibit paying 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 instead encourage donations to the local social service agencies.

“Putting up $825,000 for each of two years says that the city is serious about working on the issue,” said Ward 1 Coun. Clare Riepma. “And (I) hope that the province and county (of Simcoe) will also support our efforts.”

Nixon also said he agreed with Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall’s take on plans by Barrie Express Bus.

“We won't respond to threats that seek to turn vulnerable citizens experiencing homelessness into political pawns and, frankly, this threat is a despicable abuse of these individuals that further victimizes them instead of helping them,” Nuttall said Wednesday.

Barrie Express Bus sent an email letter to Nuttall and all other council members, saying council policies “could potentially criminalize acts of compassion towards people experiencing homelessness in the city.”

In the letter, Barrie Express Bus expressed its disappointment with council’s new policies.

“Outlawing acts of giving food or money to those in need, prohibiting the use of tents and tarps on public land, and considering a ban on giving money to panhandlers only exacerbates the challenges faced by individuals experiencing homelessness,” it reads. “It fails to acknowledge the underlying issues contributing to homelessness and shifts blame away from the responsibility of the government to provide meaningful solutions.

“We implore you to reconsider and repeal these policies promptly to ensure a more humane and empathetic approach towards addressing homelessness in our community,” the letter says. “We are prepared to take action unless these policies are reconsidered.”

Barrie Express Bus describes itself as “a group of citizens deeply committed to social justice and the well-being of all members of our community.”

The new policies were approved through a direct council motion,  without notice, by an 11-0 recorded vote on May 17.

City council’s general committee is next scheduled to meet May 31.