Local institutional response extensive but human needs continue to challenge
Article & images by Valerie MacDonald
A 36-year-old woman who lost her home due to a “domestic situation” is on the street for the first time in Cobourg unable to care for her five-month-old baby whom she is seldom able to see.
“I’d like to get work but with no place to live, it’s hard,” said the woman who declined being identified or having her photo taken.
Janson Walsh, 45, says he has been “homeless too long” after living in east end Toronto and then moving on and not being able to go back to his more recent home in Warkworth because of “confusion” over mischief and other charges. He described his work as being an “online poker player.”
“This is about everybody…the cost of living….we need help,” he said, not wanting to talk more about his own situation.
Walsh had been living in the tent city at Brookside on King Street East in Cobourg until a letter was delivered asking the tenters, about 20, to vacate. Concerned he would lose his things, he gave them to a friend to keep and now is temporarily at Transition House located near Trinity United Church. Before that he used the washrooms at the nearby Tim Hortons restaurant in east end Cobourg.
At 60, Kevin Macphee was the oldest of the group in the church yard in downtown Cobourg on the recent sunny day in late September where a number of homeless were gathered. He awoke from sleeping on the ground to say that “something has to be done” for homeless people like himself and that they are being “treated like animals” in a way that some describe as “killing them off slowly.”
What will happen when winter comes many are wondering?
A “clean up” took place on Sept. 29 at the Brookside encampment, according to Kara Euale manager of communications for the Town of Cobourg when asked this question.
“Infrastructure Ontario, on behalf of the Ministry of Infrastructure, manages the vacant Brookside Youth Centre property at 390 King St East in Cobourg. Once IO was made aware of an encampment on the property, they immediately initiated their standard process and protocols to manage the situation safely. This involves working closely with community partners here in Cobourg including Northumberland County, the Town and local outreach groups.
“Throughout this process, IO has practiced sensitivity when dealing with the individuals within the encampment. They understand and are sensitive to the social and economic issues that individuals living within the encampment may be facing and are concerned about the health and safety of the individuals within the encampment and the surrounding community.
“IO previously established 24/7 security patrols, and additional security measures are being implemented on the property following recent risk assessments. This includes more frequent patrols of the site, both within the property boundaries as well as the perimeter of the property. The public may notice increased activity on the property as additional security measures are implemented. Additionally, semi-permanent fencing was set up around Strathmore House last week as a health and safety measure for all individuals and to prevent any damage to this important heritage site.”
The clean up on Sept. 29 of the Brookside encampment was for “health and safety of the individuals within the encampment and the surrounding area,” Euale stated. Notification was given to those in the tent city and they were asked to “leave temporarily while the clean up takes place.”
She also stated that “outreach workers from Northumberland County Community & Social Services, along with partner agencies, have been engaging daily with individuals tenting on the property to support transition from the encampment to community services. We encourage those tenting to access safe shelter alternatives and other community resources.”
Asked again what will happen as cold weather settles in, Euale said there is capacity in the existing shelter system and “this capacity will further increase with the opening of the winter warming hub this fall.”
Cobourg Police Chief Paul VandeGraaf did not return a phone call about what the police are doing with regards the behaviour of some of the homeless but Euale said the “safety of all residents” is a priority for town police officers and they continue to respond to all calls for service and work collaboratively with partners to address community concerns.
She outlined these points:
• The (Police) Service continues to increase visibility and enhance community safety by deploying proactive patrols in areas with increased calls for service or community complaints and offering opportunities for crime prevention through initiatives such as the Lock It or Lose It and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) audits.
• In alignment with the CPS Downtown Action plan and CPS strategic priorities, the high visibility cruiser pilot project launched in September. Introducing this unique design makes the vehicle highly visible and quickly recognizable in the community, potentially reducing or preventing opportunities to commit crimes and enhancing road safety.
• Collaboration is integral to addressing the challenges we face as a community. We continue to support the important work of our local community agencies and County Social services through the Mental Health Engagement and Response Team (M-HEART) and Homelessness Addictions Response Program (HARP) while ensuring the safety of all residents.
• We encourage community members to report crimes, whether big or small. Residents can report non-emergency crimes by phone 905-372-6821 or online cobourgpoliceservice.com/online-reporting/. In an emergency or witnessing a crime in progress, please call 9-1-1.
Asked what Cobourg Mayor Lucas Cleveland’s position is and who’s responsibility it is, he sent this comment: “Homelessness continues to be a challenge facing communities across Canada. Addressing the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness is a complex issue with economic, health care, and social implications that requires a collective and coordinated approach by highly skilled professionals. It is a matter taken seriously by every member of Cobourg Council and all levels of government.
“Northumberland County continues to work closely with community partners including NHH Community Mental Health Services, Transition House Shelter, and Cobourg Police Homeless Addiction Resource Project (HARP), to ensure a coordinated response to unauthorized encampment on public and private property. The health and wellbeing of individuals resident in encampments in our community is at the heart of this collaborative encampment response.
“Northumberland County is making strategic investments in housing and homelessness supports to address local need. This includes a 2023 budget of $610,000 for homelessness services and approximately $10 million for housing services. These amounts are projected to remain stable in the pending 2024 budget.
“However, homelessness cannot be resolved by the local level of government alone. This complex crisis cannot be exclusively resolved by the level of government that gets 8 cents of every tax dollar.
“This issue requires additional support from our federal and provincial partners to develop, resource, and implement a coordinated system response that incorporates the physical health, mental health, and addiction wrap-around support services people need, if we are to end chronic homelessness.”
Northumberland County Warden Mandy Martin said she believes the “need is rising” with regard to the people who are homeless. The County’s “focus is to help people get a leg up” but at the same time “you can’t order people to do it….We can ask them and continue to offer.”
Martin stressed that they can offer beds and services but “we can’t provide encampment situations. That’s not our mandate.”
Encampments near schools (such as Brookside) cause issues including the presence of needles and hard core drug use close to young people. “There has to be some respect for the rest of society,” the Warden said.
There is not one solution that will fit all, she also stressed, noting that she believes there are homeless people throughout the county and not just in urban centres.
“There are people experiencing homelessness in Northumberland who are currently tenting/living rough – at the encampment at 390 King Street East, Cobourg and elsewhere, stated Northumberland County’s Communications Director Kate Campbell in response to questions from the News Now Network. “Locations often change. As outreach workers become aware of locations where individuals are tenting, they strive to connect with them to support connection to services.
“As winter approaches in Northumberland, there continues to be capacity within the shelter system, and this capacity will further increase with the opening of the winter warming hub this fall. Outreach workers will continue to connect with individuals tenting to encourage transition from tenting to community services.”
There were 1,074 households waiting for community housing as of the end of this past August in Northumberland but there is no waiting list maintained for emergency shelter. Those homeless people that allow their names to be recorded total about 85, she stated in an email. She said the number over the years is about 80 per year and that is those who are chronically homeless. At the same time, Campbell said it is difficult to estimate total numbers and the resources and supports they need.
Asked what financial resources the County is putting out there, Campbell stated that “County Council approved increasing the levy budget for homelessness from $260,000 to $560,000 annually starting in 2023, with an additional $50,000 approved in Q1 2023, for a total levy-funded budget for homelessness services of $610,000 annually. The County also budgeted approximately $10 million for housing services for 2023. Both of these amounts are projected to remain consistent in the 2024 County Budget.”