THUNDER BAY – The City of Thunder Bay has hit pause on plans to fence off an area of County Fair mall frequented by the homeless.
The city had faced criticism over its plan to fence in the former Suny’s Gas Bar with police standing by on Friday, with advocates and online commenters calling for a more compassionate solution.
The city’s licensing and enforcement manager Doug Vincent said it wasn't public pressure that prompted the change of plans, however.
The city received news Thursday that a local organization had secured funding to offer more supports to people sheltering in the area, Vincent said, but couldn't yet offer more details.
“We’ve decided to step back, take some breathing room, and allow the process to continue,” he said. “There’s very positive things happening that the city can’t announce – things coming forward from other organizations [that] we’ve been informed of.”
The city still plans to fence off the gas station at a later date, he said.
Members of activist group Not One More Death set up at the gas station Friday with a banner reading “Stop the violence. Stop the evictions.” The group said its primary aim was to ensure people sheltering there remained safe in the case of intervention by police or city workers.
“We’re sorry to hear the city [is] still planning to go ahead with the fence,” said group member PhebeAnn Wolframe-Smith. “This is private property that would be fenced in with public dollars, and it’s still not a solution.”
“We would encourage any efforts to help find more permanent solutions for folks who are sheltering at this site. Obviously what we want is for people to be housed, ultimately.”
Based on what she’s seen, she believes the community largely shares that view.
“I think the people of Thunder Bay want a different response,” she said. “We can continue to mobilize as a community to say this isn’t the right direction, and we want a more compassionate response to people experiencing houselessness.”
Volunteers have been heartened to see a diverse cross-section of community members bringing food and checking in on people there, she said.
Mayor Bill Mauro called together the public health unit, police, and social service agencies in September to address concerns from the public about the growing number of people gathering at the site. The health unit found sufficient public health concerns to justify intervening.
That resulted in increased visits from outreach workers with agencies like Matawa and Elevate NWO to the site, offering basic supplies and connecting some people with services.
Mauro said the city could play a role in coordinating with those agencies to better meet people's needs. However, he said the city lacked the resources to solve what is a responsibility of the provincial and federal governments.
“We appreciate that moving people is not solving the issue,” he said. “We’re trying to do what we can within our authorities and our financial capacity.”
“Homelessness is not something that’s owned by any municipality as an issue that they have to solve. We know at the root of this is housing – affordable housing, transitional housing… If there’s no help on those issues from the senior orders of government, you’re not likely to see much difference."
Wolframe-Smith finds that argument hard to swallow.
“Resources are spent in a lot of places on the part of the city,” she said. “They’re going to spend resources to put a fence up, they’re willing to spend extra resources on policing. Those resources could also be diverted towards… temporary measures to give people living on the streets or in encampments safer living conditions.”
Anna Betty Achneepineskum, deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, said she had met with the mayor on Monday to discuss the situation, along with Fort William First Nation Chief Peter Collins and Matawa Tribal Council.
“I understand the reasons as to why," the city had to intervene, she said, "especially when it comes to safety and hygiene."
However, she called for a response focused on supports and compassion.
Another emergency shelter is badly need in Thunder Bay’s north end, she said. The existing 20-bed Salvation Army shelter is open only to men, and requires people be sober to stay there, she noted.
Achneepineskum said NAN was also reviewing the issue of court orders that prohibit people from returning to their home First Nations, saying that contributed to the issue of Indigenous homelessness.
“They might have a bail condition that tells them they cannot go back into their community,” she said. “That seems to be a common thing, and certainly something we’re looking at addressing.”
She said all levels of government should be working together to find a solution, fearing the consequences if more support isn’t made available before winter.
Ma-Nee Chacaby, an Elder and member of Not One More Death present at the gas bar Friday, echoed that concern. The group said last year at least five people had died on Thunder Bay’s streets over the winter.
Fencing off the area seemed to be more about the comfort of customers than safety, she said.
“I think people… don’t like seeing [homeless] people in the parking lot,” she said. “People shop and they’re kind of embarrassed – but they wouldn’t be embarrassed if there was more housing available for people.”
A man who identified himself as Donny said he sometimes slept at the site because its visibility provided more safety than nearby woods, where there have been incidents of violence.
“There’s not a lot of places to sleep,” he said. “People get killed back in the bushes – it’s really scary to sleep there."
The company that owns the site, which is not affiliated with the County Fair Mall, did not respond to requests to take action, Vincent said.
“The health unit has made contact with them concerning the health and safety issues there, and the owner is unable to effect any cleanup or controls on site,” Vincent said. “They basically abandoned the property and although they own it, have basically told us they’re not doing anything.”
The city has the ability to intervene when there’s a continuing health hazard to the public, under its yard maintenance bylaw, he said.
The city will invoice the owner of the property for the cost of cleaning and fencing, Vincent said, but recovering those costs is far from certain.
“Certainly anything we do on that property that isn’t directly invoiced and paid will be ascribed back onto that property,” he said. “At some point the city, if they have a non-payment of tax issue, they can have the property put up for tax sale.”
That could result in an outside party purchasing it for whatever amount the city agrees to. They would then have to pay the outstanding taxes.
If not purchased, the city has the option to take over the property.
Former gas stations often struggle to sell due to potential contamination issues, Vincent said.