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City plans to address homelessness concerns at County Fair mall

Police, social service agencies will be involved in addressing visible homelessness at mall, but plan draws skepticism from those sheltering at the site.
Bill Mauro
Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro says the city will step in to address the issue of people sheltering at a north-end mall property. (Leith Dunick, TBNewswatch/FILE)

THUNDER BAY – The City of Thunder Bay says it will address concerns over people seeking shelter at the County Fair mall, with police, public health, and social service agencies to be involved in developing a response.

Both the general public and the company that owns the mall have contacted the city over the issue, said Mayor Bill Mauro, centering around a derelict gas station in the mall parking lot.

Concerns include people going to the bathroom without proper facilities at the site, litter, and fears expressed by customers, said business owners at the mall.

“Obviously it’s a highly visible location, the community’s very concerned, and I think it’s important to let them know that, even though homelessness is not really a direct responsibility [of the city], there are agencies in the community and municipal involvement in trying to do the best we can,” Mauro said.

The use of the site for shelter has “created health and safety concerns given the disrepair of the facility and the lack of suitable sanitary facilities,” according to a press release issued by the city Thursday.

In an interview Friday, Mauro declined to address what those health and safety concerns were in more detail.

“I think anybody that’s been near the site, the public health concerns would be pretty obvious,” he said.  

A meeting planned for next week with police, the health unit, local service providers, and the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board will develop a solution focused on “providing alternative options for the impacted individuals,” according to the city.

That could include connecting people with the city’s “extensive” housing and shelter services, it said.

Some of those sheltering at the gas station were sceptical of that approach when interviewed Friday, saying they’re already aware of available options.

Several said they didn’t feel safe in the limited number of local shelters, while wait times for transitional housing were long.

“We’re not aggravating anyone,” said one man, who said he’d been living on the street for about seven weeks. “How are we scaring people? We’re just sitting down and talking.”

Providing a porta-potty and garbage cans at the site would help address the issue, said several of those using it for shelter.

The mall owner and a business owner on the property each said they weren't aware of any incidents involving safety concerns.

One business owner located on the County Fair property said people have been gathering on the site more this summer than in the past. Though he called the group “99 per cent harmless,” he said numerous customers had complained.

“I’ve had customers that don’t shop here anymore,” he said “It’s not a good look for the city.”

The issue is made more complicated because the former gas station is private property, Mauro said, noting the city will be working with the property owner.

Concerns from customers have led Toronto-based developer Goldmanco Inc., which owns the County Fair mall but not the gas station property, to hire additional security, said accounts manager Andrea Norton.

She also said a planned visit to a market at the mall by a children’s camp had been cancelled over the issue.

Local officials were reluctant to move people away from the property, she said.

Goldmanco wants to see action from the city or property owner, but Norton suggested the company could be receptive to solutions that don’t involve forcing people off of the property, if it could be cleaned up and made a place where people could safely stay.

Municipal governments and police forces across the country have drawn criticism and protests when police were ordered to remove homeless encampments from city parks in recent months.

The situation at County Fair isn’t comparable, because it involves private property, Mauro said. He didn’t expect the city’s response to be led by police, though they will be involved in discussions.

Ultimately, the mayor said the problem stems from inadequate resources to address poverty and homelessness from upper levels of government.

“We’ll never be able to build ourselves out of this problem as a municipality,” he said. “This is where the provincial and federal supports really have to come in.”

He pointed to a proposal for a new mental health and addictions crisis centre the city submitted to the province more than a year ago, on behalf of around two dozen health and social service agencies. The city has yet to receive an answer on whether the site will be funded.

“We were really hopeful we’d get some traction on that, but to this point we haven’t,” he said. “That is absolutely the longer-term solution to a lot of these problems.”

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