Councillors Tanya Vrebosch and Mark King react to a recent presentation given to council outlining citizen concerns of homelessness downtown. (File photo, MyNorthBayNow.com staff)
North Bay city council is calling on the higher levels of government to address the growing issue of homelessness in the downtown.
During Tuesday’s council meeting, a presentation from partners of a newly-opened downtown business outlined their concerns and disappointment in the city’s downtown core, saying that they have had to call police on numerous occasions due to altercations with homeless people.
Councillor Tanya Vrebosch says that she and council recognize the frustration from the public regarding homelessness, but points out that not a whole lot can be done at the municipal level.
“It’s something that the city itself has been working on but the solutions being brought up last night are not something that we can enforce,” she said.
Vrebosch says that the ongoing opioid epidemic is the root of the growing problem of homelessness in the city, which is something that the federal government should address.
“They keep talking about finding a solution but we haven’t heard one yet. In the meantime, municipalities are trying to manage the best they can,” Vrebosch said.
There is a low-barrier homeless shelter that recently opened 10 more beds at its facility on Chippewa Street. The facility will serve as a low-barrier warming shelter as well as a transition house once further work is done to it.
Councillor Mark King, who also serves as the chair of the Nipissing and District Social Services and Administration Board (DNSSAB), says that the shelter should alleviate some of the issues being seen in the downtown core.
“One of the thought processes with the site is that we’re trying to move the transient population out of the downtown core and away from those businesses. That was an underlying opportunity that we thought would help the circumstances,” he said.
During Tuesday’s presentation, presenter David Barrie brought up the fact that there have been some homeless people who have been sent to the city through the social programs in other parts of the province.
King believes that the city should be working with the provincial government to try and reduce the amount those coming in from other parts of Ontario.
“Through their programs, they need to advise other social service entities in the province that they need to stop sending their people to North Bay. I believe that we can look after our own people but we can’t look after the problems associated with the balance of the province because we’re in a pretty extreme economic situation right now,” King noted.
King says that DNSSAB has been applying to virtually every provincial and federal grant available in order to get more financial support to address the issue.
Meanwhile, Vrebosch, who is also the deputy mayor, says that she, Mayor Al McDonald and some frontline workers have been meeting with community partners in law enforcement and healthcare to try and gather feedback on how to address issues around homelessness.
Despite the work being done, Vrebosch says that city council’s don’t usually have to deal with those sorts of problems.
“We’re being put into a realm of topics and issues that are definitely not in our wheelhouse but we’re having to deal with it because nobody else really is,” she said. “We’re supposed to be bridges and roads and infrastructure and parks and playgrounds. We’re not mental health. We’re not supposed to be the ones figuring out how to dispose of dirty needles.”
King also agrees that the growth in homelessness is not something that can be handled exclusively at the municipal level.
“Frankly, I don’t believe it’s a city of North Bay problem. Short of the fact that our operating and budgetary costs are so extreme, they put pressure on all levels of government when that takes place,” he said.
The current city council has had a mandate of growing the city. They have pledged millions of dollars towards drawing in businesses and investors to improve the downtown area. Barrie said during his presentation that if the homeless issue is not addressed, then the investment will be a waste of money.
Vrebosch, however, doesn’t see homelessness as a problem that money can fix.
“It’s policy and process at the higher level. I don’t have multi-millions of dollars to build a treatment facility. Even if I could build it, I can’t force people to use it,” she explained. “It’s going to take multiple levels of government and community service providers to come together to find a solution.”
King agrees that if things are going to improve in the downtown area, then action needs to be taken.
“If we’re ever going to change the environment down there, there are major changes that have to take place and obviously I don’t believe those are happening at this particular point,” he said.
Vrebosch assures that she and the rest of council are aware of the ongoing issues and that Tuesday night’s presentation did not fall on deaf ears.
“We’re not just sitting back watching. We see it, we get it and we’re working on solutions,” she finished.