THUNDER BAY – A community group is seeking more action from the city after reports of numerous deaths on Thunder Bay’s streets in recent weeks.
Volunteers with Not One More Death say the situation is reaching a crisis point, with COVID-19 outbreaks in local corrections facilities spreading into the community, and the region entering a cold snap that could last for days.
“The outbreak at the jail and the correctional facility have really overrun the system,” said Amanda Bakke, with shelters and overflow rooms at local hotels reaching capacity in recent days.
The group says it will present to city council Monday, calling for responses including a 24/7 warming bus and opening another emergency shelter.
Reports of deaths on city’s streets
The situation was already dire before the pandemic, according to Bakke and other members of Not One More Death, which formed to protest police violence and systemic racism in Thunder Bay.
They say they’ve received credible reports of six deaths on the city’s streets since Dec. 24.
“We hear stories from the community, and that’s how we know it’s going on – or else we probably wouldn’t know, because of the lack of reporting and information that’s available to the public,” Bakke said.
Twenty people died from hypothermia between 2010 and 2018 in the city, according to the office of the regional supervising coroner (more recent data is not yet available).
However, neither the coroner, the city, nor the Thunder Bay DSSAB, which administers provincial funding to local shelters, track whether those deaths are related to homelessness.
“We do not isolate deaths by homelessness as it is difficult to gather this type of information depending on accesses a person has been through,” a representative for the coroner’s office said.
Melody Macsemchuk of Grace Place, which runs an emergency shelter in the south end, said it wasn’t uncommon for several homeless people a year to die on the streets from exposure before 2017, when the organization launched its 15-bed Out of the Cold program.
The program welcomes those who may not be accepted at other shelters, some of which are gender specific or don't accept people who are intoxicated.
“Every year, there would be a lot of people that froze to death,” Macsemchuk said. “The last year before we started [Out of the Cold], I think there were eight - that’s the highest I remember.”
She hasn't heard of any hypothermia deaths among the homeless since then, though people have died on the streets for other reasons, she said.
“We never had a problem since Out of the Cold started. It seems every night, someone had a place to go.”
Leaders at the city’s main shelters said they wouldn’t turn people away with no alternatives.
“My staff would never leave someone out in the cold without a place to go,” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the local Salvation Army, which runs a 20-bed men’s shelter in the north end.
“If there were a situation where people had nowhere to go, I’d put them in the lobby. Nobody’s going to freeze.”
Not all deaths on the streets are related to a lack of access to shelter, but they’re all preventable, Not One More Death believes.
“[What] I understand is that these people died outside, and that’s kind of all we need to know,” said volunteer Cassie Thornton. “Whether it’s overdose, COVID, or freezing to death – it’s neglect, and it’s all related to systemic racism.”
Expanded capacity during pandemic
Michelle Jordan, executive director of the 58-bed Shelter House in the south end, said they coordinate with the other shelters daily to find beds for those who need them.
With financial support from government, the groups also arranged to use several dozen rooms at a local hotel as an overflow centre during the pandemic, staffed 24 hours a day.
The city also funded a daytime warming centre that opened in January.
“It’s huge,” Jordan said of the additional capacity. “In the past, there have been times when it’s been very difficult to find a place for people.”
Staff were sometimes left driving clients to a coffee shop to stay warm in past years when beds ran out, she said.
The recent outbreaks at the Thunder Bay District Jail and Thunder Bay Correctional Centre have strained even the additional pandemic capacity, however.
Mayor Bill Mauro declared a state of emergency over the situation last week, which advocates hope will free up provincial funds for further measures.
“The concern is if COVID can take hold in some of the [shelters] and affect not only the residents but also staff, what would it mean for existing shelter capacity?” Mauro said.
The Shelter House had to stop accepting new clients earlier this week after a positive COVID-19 case.
Group pushes for greater response
Not One More Death plans to present to city council on Monday, seeking support for five proposals they released in an open letter.
The city bears a special responsibility to address the problem, the group argues, after decades of neglect and underfunding - though city leaders have consistently argued they're doing what they can to shore up services the province is ultimately responsible for.
“The emergency we find ourselves in today should not come as a surprise," the group's letter reads. "It is the direct result of decades of failed policy that has largely sought to criminalize vulnerabilized populations. This crisis could and should have been avoided, but city leadership has not made it a priority.”
The city clerk's office could not yet confirm whether the group had been added to the agenda for Monday's public meeting, but said new items could be added Monday morning.
Not One More Death's suggestions were developed in conversation with people living on the streets and local service organizations, they said.
One key ask is a warming bus that would run 24 hours a day between the city’s north and south ends. That would not only provide respite from the cold, but help transport people to the appropriate shelters and access other services.
The bus should be staffed with an anti-racist social worker and someone equipped with first aid, the group suggested, and could also distribute warm clothing.
The group is also calling for the city to establish an emergency shelter to ensure adequate capacity. Ideally, they say it should be located in the north end, where no wet shelter – one accepting intoxicated clients – exists.
They also call on the city to reimburse local groups and individuals for efforts to help vulnerable people in emergency situations.
“Several grassroots groups are presently paying out-of-pocket for hotel rooms, taxi rides, meals, clothing, and other things for people who fall through the cracks,” they write.
Police should not be involved in any of the solutions, the group emphasized, citing a lack of trust among shelter users.
Looking to longer-term solutions, group elder Ma-Nee Chacaby wants the city to support construction of a longhouse to provide additional shelter capacity.
“The longhouse represents an important part of an Anishinaabe worldview and protocols,” the group writes. “Given that many if not most people who are vulnerable have an Indigenous and Anishinaabe background, such a structure will be important to helping them feel welcome.”
Lastly, the group calls for more transparency in the shelter system, saying not enough is known by users or the public.
They propose publishing data on shelter usage daily, including the number of people turned away. They also suggest including frontline workers and shelter users in the city’s Vulnerable Populations Working Group meetings.
The city advises residents to call the Street Outreach Service at 620-7678 if they see someone on the streets who needs assistance.