THUNDER BAY – Members of Thunder Bay’s city council argued this week the city is coming in for unfair expectations and criticism on issues of homelessness and poverty.
The discussion came at Monday’s council meeting, as Mayor Bill Mauro provided an update on the development of a protocol for a “collaborative response” to homelessness in the city, prompted by concerns over an encampment at the County Fair mall.
Councillors joined the mayor in praising those doing good work in the community – and sometimes in bristling at criticism the city received over its response, which included a plan to fence off an abandoned gas station used for shelter by the homeless.
“We do a phenomenal amount of work, but to some people, it’s just never, never enough,” said Coun. Albert Aiello, who has pushed for a response to concerns over the County Fair mall encampment, which is located in his McIntyre Ward.
“I’m not here to say we do enough, but at the end of the day we need to have that discussion, and we’ve got to get back to that balance… where residents have a sense of community safety, and on the other side is being empathetic to the needs of our most vulnerable population, and ensuring they get the help and services they need.”
The mayor said he had taken the step of convening groups including NorWest Community Health Centres, the St. Joseph's Care Group, police, the Thunder Bay DSSAB, Elevate NWO, Matawa, Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the Shelter House, and numerous others, after hearing ongoing concerns about homelessness from residents.
Mauro has emphasized the city "doesn't own homelessness" but can play a coordinating role, saying the development of a protocol will help respond to situations like the County Fair encampment.
“[People] want to know what as a corporation we’re doing about this," he said. "They see the city, like with many issues, as owning the issue of homelessness. And they don’t want to hear you say, well that’s not really the purview of municipalities… They expect something from you, and that’s fair.”
Mauro claimed the City of Thunder Bay does more to address homelessness than most municipalities, pointing to its funding of an emergency warming centre, staffed care bus, and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year budgeted to support local shelter and emergency food organizations, with extra support offered during the pandemic.
Councillors should feel proud of those steps, Mauro said.
“You’ve done great work, in my opinion, and yet the message in the community isn’t there,” he said. “There’s still criticism of the publicly elected body and of the corporation as a whole of not doing anything or not doing enough.”
“There are lots of positive stories… but the problem is the negativity always overpowers the good stories,” agreed Coun. Peng You. “I really don’t like that.”
City manager Norm Gale told councillors the city isn’t responsible for addressing mental health or homelessness.
“These issues are not our domain,” he said. “We're not the ones delivering health care, social services, and shelter. We don’t do that, we’re not the experts on this.”
Coun. Albert Aiello said while that may be true, it’s an unsatisfying answer for concerned constituents.
“It’s really difficult for me... to tell people that really, at the end of the day, it’s not the responsibility of the city to solve the homelessness problem. We have a role to play, for sure, and I tell them we do a lot more than other communities.”
Mauro said the city is facing a crisis of social issues including opioid addiction without enough support from provincial and federal governments.
“By and large… without provincial or federal supports, we are going to have a very difficult time minimizing the occurrences of homelessness, mental health, and addictions in our community," he said.
Coun. Kristen Oliver agreed, saying the city’s main role is to push those governments to do more. She pointed to the city’s support for a proposal from a coalition of local agencies for a mental health and addictions crisis centre.
“It’s the provincial and federal government that have a large role to play in this, and as a municipal government, our role really is the advocacy and lobbying piece,” she said.
The proposed crisis centre is crucial, Mauro said, noting he recently asked Minister Greg Rickford to support it around the provincial cabinet table. The mayor has expressed impatience at the lack of a response from the province so far.
“This is the answer fundamentally, or certainly at least part of the answer, if we can increase our capacity when it comes to mental health and addictions as a community,” Mauro said.
Inadequate supports on mental health, addictions, and housing are straining the city's emergency services, said Oliver.
“Certainly our frontline support is seeing a huge shift in their service delivery,” she said. “We’re starting to see more pressure on our police, fire and EMS to address” mental health, addictions, and homelessness issues, “and that’s incredibly concerning for us as a council.”
Coun. Andrew Foulds said the city would have to make “tough choices” to deal with the issues, regardless of jurisdiction.
“Although the city manager says health, mental health isn’t in our wheelhouse, poverty is hitting us badly,” he said. “We’re using resources, whether it’s through emergency services [or elsewhere]… We’re in the thick of it, whether we like it or not.”
“There’s great work being done, but boy, there’s a lot of work to be done. I hope tonight’s conversation is a start to a call to action that we’re going to do better."
Coun. Brian Hamilton said there was progress being made by the city and other local agencies, including those emergency services.
“Now there’s a real big fire being lit on these issues, and it’s fantastic,” he said. “EMS and police have totally different responses now for when they’re addressing people with deep poverty and homelessness. Things are changing on that front, and that’s only been in the last couple of years.”
The city should continue supporting local agencies offering supports on the ground, he said.
“It’s not our role to do everything,” he said. “I think our role now as city council, as city administration – and I think this is happening – is to stand back and let these organizations that have been on the front lines for so long lead… They have the expertise, they have people with lived experience.”
Coun. Aldo Ruberto said helping those in need is a collective responsibility, not just an issue for governments to address.
“There’s a lot of people out there just helping people,” he said. “The city is you – that’s I think what some people forget. They say, ‘what are you doing?’ What are we doing, that’s the question."
"I get frustrated when people ask, ‘what’s going on, the city’s doing nothing.’ Well, have you ever done any research to check out what’s going on? No, they heard about it by some guy typing in a computer in a basement somewhere, criticizing.”
In an interview, Mauro called the protocol with outside groups a “work in progress” and couldn’t offer a timeline for when it might be completed, but said it had already started important conversations and opened the door to greater collaborative work.