THUNDER BAY – The City of Thunder Bay has officially responded to calls for more action to support the homeless and other vulnerable groups amid a worsening local COVID-19 situation.
Community group Not One More Death, which formed to protest police violence and systemic racism in Thunder Bay, said last month it had received credible reports of six deaths on the city’s streets amid a serious cold snap and an outbreak declared specifically among the homeless population.
The group called on the city to implement proposals including a warming bus, more shelter and isolation space, access to harm reduction services for those isolating, and paying inmates at local facilities experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks to self-isolate upon their release.
City council referred those proposals to administration for review after the group presented them on Feb. 8.
At the time, city leaders stressed that the municipal government was not responsible for the shelter system or addressing homelessness, and said some N1MD proposals fell outside of its jurisdiction.
A 13-page report presented to council Monday said the city had nonetheless helped coordinate the local response and provide emergency support to shelters and other groups.
“The city has played an important coordination and facilitation role since the start of the pandemic,” said city manager Norm Gale. “We do not, however, provide direct support to people who are vulnerable, homeless, or under-housed… nor do we have the authority over emergency shelters or isolation shelters.”
Some N1MD proposals were already in place, the report stated, like offering food and access to entertainment, phones, and harm reduction services for those at the local isolation shelter.
Others were being pursued by local organizations with support from the city, such as the warming bus and a proposal for a longhouse to provide long-term shelter and a safe space for Indigenous people in the city.
Fully 90 per cent of those who have accessed service at the isolation shelter during COVID-19 have self-identified as Indigenous, the city reported.
That underlined existing inequities and the need for further specific supports, said manager of Indigenous relations and inclusion Regina Mandamin.
“We have to address the situation in its factual entirety,” she said Monday. “A high proportion of those who are vulnerabilized in Thunder Bay, who are experiencing homelessness or precarious housing identify as Indigenous.”
Coun. Aldo Ruberto took issue with how the situation was being portrayed in media reports and on social media.
“We hear it all the time: Nobody’s doing anything, these poor people are dying, they’re out in the cold, and nobody cares,” he said. “That upsets me a lot, because I know the people out there every day volunteering.”
“I think when people make comments like that, they’re actually attacking the organizations and the volunteers that have been working day in and day out to help the most vulnerable.”
The at-large councillor disputed the suggestion that neglect by the city or social agencies was behind reports of deaths on the city’s streets. He said he considered those reports exaggerated following a conversation with the coroner’s office.
Medical issues including addiction often played a complicating role in cases of exposure, he said.
“I want to say to the public, we want to help everybody, but there’s one thing that has to happen: the person wants to get help,” Ruberto said.
City played coordinating, support role
Mayor Bill Mauro said leaders needed to help residents understand the municipality’s limited role on the issue, and that overall the community had responded admirably to a difficult situation.
Responses like the isolation shelter launched in April of 2020 were developed collaboratively by local shelters and social service providers at the Vulnerable Populations COVID-19 Planning Table convened by the city, Mauro said.
Initially offering 15 rooms and some overflow capacity, the isolation shelter was expanded to 53 rooms by Feb. 4 as cases rose among the vulnerable population, the city reported.
About 105 individuals were lodged in two isolation facilities in the city on Monday, with firefighters offering staffing support, city administration said. An estimated 1,300 individuals had accessed service through the isolation shelter throughout the pandemic.
A large collection of local agencies is providing health, social, and harm reduction services to those individuals.
“Remember, up until the last three weeks, as a city we were doing really relatively well when it came to managing this,” Mauro concluded.
Coun. Andrew Foulds also praised city staff and outside groups for their work to support the vulnerable, but sounded a more cautious note, saying the city could do more to address the root causes behind issues like homelessness.
“We could spend all night patting ourselves on the back,” he said, “but I think we have to acknowledge that there’s a lot of work still to be done… We’ve been in a crisis for 10 months, but people dying outside and poverty has been here a lot more than [that].”
“This has sort of ripped the band-aid off, this has exposed a wound in our society… that’s not going away after the pandemic is over.”
Funding running short
Staff also warned more support could be needed as existing funding for the isolation shelter ran short.
The Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board (DSSAB) has so far funded the costs of rooms and breakfasts using emergency funding from federal-provincial relief dollars.
However, the city warned that funding is close to expiring at the end of March, and there had been no commitment from Ontario to renew it beyond that time.
The city has an outstanding request to the Public Health Agency of Canada for funding support from the beginning of April to the end of September.
Volunteer organizations like the Red Cross, Team Rubicon, and Samaritan’s Purse were also assisting, Gale said.
Care bus to become a reality
The proposal for a warming bus is set to become reality after NorWest Community Health Centres was successful in applying for funding that will also allow supported alcohol consumption at a daytime warming centre.
The project, supported by the city and mental health and addictions agency P.A.C.E., will run a city bus between the north and south ends 12 hours per day (N1MD had proposed a 24/7 service).
The bus will make stops at service agencies, and be staffed with peer harm reduction workers and a community health worker, the city reported.
The wet warming centre project will allow individuals to consume alcohol in a supervised setting.
“Both of these activities would better link individuals to health, social, and housing services, and reduce spread of COVID-19 among vulnerabilized individuals and support contact tracing when cases are identified,” said drug strategy coordinator Cynthia Olsen.
The city is contributing in-kind support worth $15,000, its report stated, and will work with Lakehead University to evaluate the success of the pilot programs.