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City will fence off mall area frequented by homeless

City plans to clean and fence off derelict gas station used for shelter by the homeless this week, with police standing by.
Former Sunny's Gas Bar County Fair plaza
The city plans to fence off a former gas station at the County Fair plaza that has become a gathering place for the homeless. (Ian Kaufman, TBNewswatch)

THUNDER BAY – The City of Thunder Bay will erect a fence around a former gas station that has become a gathering place for the homeless at the County Fair Mall.

The city plans to clean and fence off the area Friday, with city police present to "keep the peace,” according to the force.

Mayor Bill Mauro called a meeting with police, public health, and other local agencies earlier this month, saying the growing number of people sheltering at the property posed public health and safety problems.

Local advocates and some of those who frequent the site say barring access will only move the issue out of public view, not address it, pointing to a shortage of support services.

Attempts to work with the owners of the former Sunny’s Gas Bar property in the mall’s parking lot to find a solution proved fruitless, city officials said at a public meeting held by McIntyre Ward city councillor Albert Aiello Tuesday.

"The mall has always been a place with a lot of social issues, a lot of homeless people," said Aiello. "We see the panhandlers, we see open drunkenness, people approaching other people for cigarettes, for money.”

Those problems escalated over the summer, he said.

The small parcel of property, where the gas station’s overhang and concrete pads remain, is owned by County Fair Plaza Ltd. – a company not associated with the County Fair Mall, despite its name (the mall is owned by Toronto-based Goldmanco Inc.).

The city is able to intervene because the encampment has caused public health issues, said licensing and enforcement manager Doug Vincent at Tuesday’s ward meeting.

Lee Sieswerda of the Thunder Bay District Health Unit said fencing off the area was justified, given repeated problems including bodily fluids, garbage, and rotten food. Those sheltering at the site are also at risk of being hit by a vehicle in the busy parking lot, he said.

At the ward meeting, Thunder Bay Police Service Staff Sgt. Ron Maki said police would support the city’s solution, but would be of little help in addressing the root issue.

“We now have a blanket trespass authority from the owner of this property,” he said. “So yeah, we can go in and kick everybody out, but unfortunately, it’s not going to address the root cause."

“Until the social issues are dealt with, it’s still going to be an issue the city is going to end up dealing with over and over again – if not in County Fair, somewhere else.”

The city’s approach is “not going to solve the bigger problem at all,” Vincent acknowledged, with people likely moving to a nearby forested area instead.

One man who identified himself as Kyle, from Webequie First Nation, said that without a place to stay, he often shelters at the gas bar.

“It’s not where I want to be,” he said. “I’ve been trying to go to detox.”

However, he said clients are only allowed to stay in treatment there for seven days.

“After that, I come back to the same routine,” he said.

Kyle was aware of the city’s plans to fence off the area on Friday, saying he’d been told by outreach workers. He’s likely to end up staying in the bush instead, he said.

It’s a familiar story, said Leesa Davey, who coordinates Matawa’s WiiChiiHehWayWin outreach program, which has worked with the city on the issue.

“They have no real places to go,” she said. “They’re being pushed out of there with no real plan on where the alternative spaces [are] for them. So I think they’ll just end up moving to another area.”

The gas station is one of several places in the city where outreach workers offer basic supplies and look to connect people with services like detox and housing programs.

The problem is that those programs are already overstretched, Davey said.  

“I think the real issue in the city is the lack of mental health and addiction services. We have people cycling in and out of detox, and there’s limited spaces there.”

With the country preparing to mark a National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Davey said the community should recognize that homelessness reflects the ongoing impact of colonialism on Indigenous people, who make up the majority of the city’s homeless.

“My point would be to say it’s everybody’s problem,” she said. “Homelessness didn’t just come about out of nowhere – it comes from colonization, the impacts of the Indian Act, oppression, intergenerational trauma through residential schools.”

Andrea Hygaard, manager of the Landmark Hotel, echoed the sentiment, but said the situation left her business suffering unfairly.

“People come in and cancel their rooms because of driving through that,” she said. “They say they don’t feel safe leaving their vehicles, coming in to the hotel."

She agreed fencing off the gas station won’t address the issue, likely only forcing people a few hundred metres into the woods. Still, she called it a positive step for her business.

“There’s no easy answer,” Hygaard said. “It’s a societal problem. With that being said, it’s not a Landmark problem. It’s very difficult to be a tax-paying business and have to endure this.”

The situation is a result of a society that’s turned its back on those who need help, said Kate Rookes of activist group Not One More Death.

“We see these encampments as earnest attempts at creating safe shelter by individuals in need of housing,” she said.

She criticized the city’s response for seemingly focusing more on the needs of businesses than the crisis of homelessness.

“Ultimately, this isn’t an issue of protecting private property, or it shouldn’t be,” she said. “It’s a matter of keeping human beings alive.”

Those without a place to stay may avoid emergency shelters for a variety of reasons – women often don’t feel safe there, while policies barring intoxication or possessing illicit substances keep others away, Rookes noted.

Meanwhile, people can face waits of more than a year to access more stable housing support, she said.

Bill Bradica, CAO of the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board (TBDSSAB), agreed there’s a severe shortage of supportive housing, which he said many people need to transition successfully from homelessness to independent tenancy.

The TBDSSAB administers social housing and provincial funds for emergency shelters and other programs aimed at reducing homelessness, while supportive housing is largely funded by the province, through agencies like Dilico, AlphaCourt, and the John Howard Society. Those agencies aren't provided enough funding to meet demand, Bradica said.

The waitlist for social housing in the district has shrunk, from over 1,000 people three years ago to around 850 today, Bradica said, with the average wait time now around 10 months.

While there’s still a need for more social housing, he said the crisis is in the lack of supportive housing, where waitlists can be far longer.

“The greatest need right now is for more transitional and supportive housing, because emergency shelters are not the answer,” he said. “They’re supposed to be [a] very, very temporary solution while people are then assisted into ideally a transitional or supportive environment. But if that capacity isn’t there, shelters remain at or close to full capacity.”

The two emergency shelters the TBDSSAB funds, the Shelter House and the Salvation Army’s men’s shelter, operated at over 90 per cent capacity in the first half of September, Bradica said. They offer a combined 93 beds, including overflow capacity.

The DSSAB also provided funding to Matawa and Elevate NWO for outreach work at locations like County Fair where people who are homeless tend to congregate.

Mayor Bill Mauro was not immediately available for comment Wednesday afternoon.

He has previously said the city’s approach to the issue at County Fair would serve as a model to respond to similar issues in the future.

Mauro has called on the provincial and federal governments to provide more funding for homelessness, expressing disappointment over a lack of support from Queen’s Park for a proposed mental health and addictions crisis centre backed by numerous local health and social service groups.

With files from Cory Nordstrom, TBT News.

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