Former Brookside property is a functioning temporary safe space
Opinion/images by Dave Glover
Last Thursday I received a call from my sister-in-law informing me that the folks camped on the Brookside property, the former Ontario Government facility for youth offenders, had been served with an order to vacate the area. The instruction apparently coming from the security company retained by Infrastructure Ontario to keep the grounds safe and secure.
Unhoused Northumberland residents have been camping on the property for the past couple of weeks with tents and other structures set up east of the creek, amongst the trees, generally out of sight from passers-by.
I fired up my mobility scooter and drove down to the encampment. On the way there, I wondered where the unhoused would be shuttled off to this time. If they couldn’t stay at that current location, then where?
To date, Northumberland County and the town of Cobourg have done a pretty lousy job of dealing with what they have deemed an emergency.
Upon arrival, I was surprised to see the encampment still very much in place. Staff from the community and County social services were just leaving, having done a wellness check. Residents were milling about and otherwise going about their day.
Talking to a woman sitting in her car, I asked what had happened, as I was wondering about eviction notice. She had heard that the notice had been served improperly and thus couldn’t be enforced.
I introduced myself and Grace (not her real name) told me she was there to meet her son Frances (not his real name) so she could drive him to his job.
Yes, that’s right, homeless but he has a job.
Usually, he doesn’t rely on his mom to drive him, but on this day Grace was there to pick him up.
Frances is an approximately thirty-year-old man who has been unhoused for some time. He did have a place but lost it. And since then, he has been struggling to find accommodations he can afford.
Presently only part-time employed, Grace told me he has been out on his own since his early 20s, and is not willing to return home. She confided she no longer has room in her small apartment for him to stay anyway.
Grace isn’t the only parent I know struggling with a child living rough.
Several volunteers in our community have a son or daughter living rough. Some are unhoused and addicted; others are unhoused and struggling with mental health issues.
Parents such as Grace, and most of them are women, are tormented daily with the fear of not knowing about the welfare of their children. Not knowing where they are, whether they’re still using, whether or not they’re eating or getting the help they need.
It’s easy for those who aren’t affected by addiction, joblessness, homelessness or mental health issues, to make judgements, but parents like Grace are living with a nightmare every day.
Some parents, frustrated, thinking enough is enough, try tough love. But tough love isn’t easy. It means turning your back on your child at their lowest point.
Could you do that to your child or the child of your sibling?
I asked Grace how she is dealing with her son’s situation.
She said he knows he can always call, and that she is there for him. Grace wishes he would come home, but she knows he won’t.
He’s a 30-something-year-old man. He is not going back to live with his mother.
I asked her about what he expects now that the encampment may have to relocate.
She said that he has his addiction under control and that he is hoping he and a couple of friends will be able to find a place. However, she added that there is a big roadblock in the way, there aren’t any vacancies.
Grace went on to tell me that her son is thinking about going back to school to become a street outreach worker.
When Frances joined us, I asked him about his plans and he said that due to his experience he thinks he would be really good at the job. Went so far as to say, he’s found his calling. People at the encampment say he’s been a strong advocate and a good listener.
Looking about the area at those camping on the Brookside property, you can see they have formed a close community of neighbours. They take care of each other and have tried their best to keep their presence peaceful and quiet. They aren’t looking to attract trouble and are doing their best to keep trouble away from the encampment.
A camper I spoke with told me about her life in this small community. It is the first time in a long while that she has felt any kind of security. For her, being unhoused is a new and traumatizing experience. She said that the present location of the group, amongst the trees, with the high fence of the former facility behind them and the creek on the west side, makes everyone feel fairly safe and until permanent accommodation is found, she is happy to stay on the property.
I found the sense of community she talked about at the encampment encouraging. The campers haven’t had a sense of community. And now they feel safe. They have a others around to help them.
This is a community that has no leader with everyone very much making their own way. But they watch over each other and their stuff.
While on-site, I spoke with volunteers Nicole and David from the Green Wood Coalition, who along with Robert, were there to show solidarity should the order of eviction have been carried out. Along with them were the Cobourg Police Service officers who arrived on the site as I was preparing to leave. Known to “campers” they were greeted happily by a few residents. The officers were there for the wellness check and to ensure order. I could tell that they have built a rapport with the residents of this community.
I have written often, on the matter of the unhoused in Northumberland, and many readers know that I believe it’s up to the Ford/Piccini government to solve this not-so-perplexing dilemma. The encampment, as it’s become known, is presently located precisely where the temporary solution to the problem of how to deal with the homeless in Cobourg can be found. And where a permanent solution in the form of affordable permanent housing can be erected that will meet the needs of the unhoused.
The property is currently held by Infrastructure Ontario. The same department mandated to deal with property deemed surplus by the government of Ontario.
I spoke to a staffer named Ian at the agency who told me nothing has changed. The Town of Cobourg has not made an application to purchase the property, nor has the County. When asked if MPP Piccini or his staff had made any inquiries, he said there is no record of any inquiries from Cobourg, the County or ,indeed, MPP Piccini’s’ office.
When I contacted MPP Piccini’s’ office I was told that currently no public information is available as to what, if anything MPP Piccini might be doing on behalf of the Town or the County on the acquisition of the former Brookside facility site.
The social problems caused by homelessness, addiction and mental health issues won’t be solved with an official encampment at Brookside, but a major problem of where to live would be.
Once again, I’m calling on the Mayor of the Town of Cobourg and the County Council of Northumberland to implore MPP Piccini to make this acquisition happen.
It shouldn’t cost us more than a dollar…
Transferring ownership from one Government entity to another requires a monetary exchange. Just a single Loony. That’s what the staff at Infrastructure Ontario confirmed when I asked.
Dave Glover is a well known cultural and political commentator in Northumberland. Thousands of listeners, both locally and worldwide, know Dave because of his “Drive Time” radio broadcast that ran for more than 8 years and his 15 years hosting political programs on a local cable channel.
Listen to/Contact Dave