THUNDER BAY — Residents of Thunder Bay’s McKellar Ward put concerns over issues of homelessness and addiction front and centre as they grilled the man who will, as of Monday, take the reins of the city’s beleaguered police force.
Thunder Bay Police Service chief designate Darcy Fleury took questions and outlined his vision for the force as he attended a ward meeting hosted by Coun. Brian Hamilton on Wednesday evening.
Just over 20 people showed up to the meeting, which along with a question and answer session with Fleury included an open discussion that largely focused on homelessness and addiction.
Residents vented frustration over the impact of drug trafficking and homelessness on their day-to-day lives, and their perception that elected leaders are doing little to meaningfully tackle the issues.
Cumming Street resident Dave Miskimins said he and his wife had been instructed to shelter in their home multiple times by police SWAT teams in recent years, calling that a visceral symbol of growing drug and disorder issues in the neighbourhood.
“My question to you is when you have a problem like what occurs around the alley, why can’t you put boots on the ground?” he asked Fleury and acting chief Dan Taddeo, who accompanied him to the meeting. “You know it’s a problem. It’s a daily problem.”
“We need you to show up. I know it’s a dirty job and they’re just going to come back as soon as you leave, I get that. But we need you showing up.”
Fleury responded that he will be looking to shuffle police resources to provide more beat policing in priority neighbourhoods, something Taddeo said will be supported by a policing expansion approved in the city’s 2023 budget.
“This city council supported a large budget increase for the issues you describe,” he said.
Area resident Linda Gambee said neighbours in her public housing building are “terrified” by people engaging in drug trafficking activity, and associated unpredictable behaviour they see on a daily basis.
“We’re seniors, but we’re not dead,” she said. “We’re afraid to come home in the dark because we don’t want to walk across the parking lot and run into any of them.”
However, she said the answer is “rehabilitation, not judgment” and an expansion of housing and addictions treatment options.
“This is a community issue, it’s not a policing issue on it’s own,” she said. “It’s an issue the community needs to deal with — we all have to come together and do that.”
Asked how he’d approach those issues, Fleury said he’ll look to expand a police partnership with social housing operator the District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board.
DSSAB leaders have called for a possible expansion of community policing at its properties following a daytime shootout last week at its Spence Court apartment.
Hamilton expressed optimism the province’s recent move to triple the DSSAB’s homelessness prevention budget would help.
“Right now there’s a lot of frustration, I get it,” he said. “It’s not just in the big social housing. There’s a lot of small cluster units around Pearl Street and others that are experiencing these issues with people who deserve and need to be in supportive or transitional housing.”
“I can’t overstate how important it is to have an additional $30 million over three years. That is going to make a visible impact. I think some of the commentary we heard … about Kam River Park and the homelessness issues, a lot of these situations are going to be mitigated through this funding.”
However, Taddeo emphasized police aren’t always the right agency to lead the response on issues that relate more to homelessness, poverty, and addiction than to crime.
Instead, he said the force is working more to support health and social service agencies.
However, the outgoing acting chief argued that badly needed shift is being held back by a lack of resources from upper levels of government for services like supportive housing and addictions treatment.
“At some point, the specific supports needed in Thunder Bay have to be recognized, and it has to be supported by other levels of government,” he said.
Taddeo suggested that could kneecap recommendations made by an expert panel appointed to advise the Thunder Bay Police Service on addressing issues like systemic racism, referring to comments made by the panel’s chair, Alok Mukherjee.
“He is a big proponent to defund … the police — shift money from police budgets to social services, housing, things like that,” Taddeo said. “It’s a great concept, except that concept has not been operationalized.”
Without more action to reduce the demand for illicit drugs by supporting people out of addiction, Taddeo suggested, police action will have a limited impact.
“We can reduce it through enforcement, but unfortunately it’s going to pop up again, because the profit margin and the market share in Thunder Bay is that high.”
“We have to buy into reducing the market share, getting people off of drugs, reduce your homelessness, help out Elevate Northwest, help Path 525,” he said, referring to local services that support those struggling with addiction.
In an interview following the meeting, Fleury said he believed residents’ core message was their serious concerns over safety, violence, and crime, all issues he said are largely linked to the narcotics trade.
He called the sometimes sharp exchanges with residents just what he’s looking for.
“I talked about having town hall meetings … I want to see more of that,” he said. “The questions are exactly what we want to see — we want to know what we’re doing good, what we can do better, and what are we doing really horribly.”
At least one resident expressed frustration with the city’s supportive approach to homeless encampments, sparring verbally with Hamilton over the issue.
The resident argued the approach left people fearful of visiting places like Kam River Park, where people have set up makeshift shelters in recent weeks, claiming he had been threatened on a recent visit.
“The city’s not doing a damn thing,” he said.
Hamilton pointed to recent court rulings that found people who are homeless have a right to shelter themselves when adequate housing options are not available, and limiting municipalities’ ability to evict them.
“It’s a frustrating situation,” Hamilton said. “We had residents come down from McVicar Creek … They had very moving testimony. They’re afraid — there’s parties, there’s campfires, there’s people bathing in the rivers, defecating all over the place, and there’s very, very little we can do aside from assist people in getting what they need.”
Hamilton added that outreach workers partnered with the city have already been working with people sheltering at Kam River Park to clean up the area and offer connections with services. Over 50 people were connected with housing through that program last year.
“That’s the path [we’re taking], and if you don’t want to accept it, that’s fine, but–”
“I don’t,” the resident shot back. “If you spent less time being politically appropriate and more time putting boots on the ground … It’s a proven fact, when you put beat cops in a city, crime goes down.”
Hamilton replied that police weren’t necessarily the answer, arguing enforcement-based approaches have shown limited effectiveness.
“I know there’s a widespread sense of frustration with what’s going on in the community,” he said. “This is not a Thunder Bay issue, this is a Canada-wide issue … It’s an ugly mess out there right now.”
“I’d like to go out there and just clean it up, but that’s not necessarily going to solve the problem. What’s going to solve the problem is actually a compassionate approach — caring for people, getting them into successful tenancies in housing, jobs, visiting their families, reconnecting their shattered lives.”
“We’re not just jailing people… We have to carry these community members with us — that’s the only way we’re going to succeed, and that’s the long, hard road. I think that’s the only answer — there’s no quick solutions.”
A video recording of the ward meeting will be available shortly at the city’s website.