THUNDER BAY - A proposed youth transitional housing facility on Junot Avenue that has generated both support and opposition from people living the area will go ahead.
Thunder Bay city council voted 7-5 in favour of a bylaw amendment Monday night to allow the facility to be constructed in the north-side neighbourhood.
When explaining why he was going to support the bylaw amendment, Coun. Andrew Foulds said it is time people in the city stop criminalizing people living in poverty, facing addictions, or living with a mental health issue.
“We see these things in our downtowns,” he said. “We see these issues in or neighbourhoods, we see it in our streets. The cost of these issues are enormous.”
Coun. Rebecca Johnson said she was uncomfortable with voting in favour of the bylaw amendment because of the location and the concerns raised by people in the neighbourhood regarding crime and safety.
“I can’t take that on my conscience,” she said. “I’m very uncomfortable with this to be honest. We need transitional housing. But I’m very concerned and very uncomfortable with this particular location.”
Coun. Aldo Ruberto, Coun. Brian Hamilton, Coun. Andrew Foulds, Coun. Kristen Oliver, Coun. Cody Fraser, and Coun. Shelby Ch'ng and Mayor Bill Mauro voted in favour of the bylaw amendment, while Coun. Trevor Giertuga, Coun. Peng You, Coun. Rebecca Johnson, Coun. Brian McKinnon, and Coun. Mark Bentz voted against.
The 58-bed transitional housing facility, initially proposed as a 20-bed facility, will assist Indigenous youth struggling with addiction by providing access to programming, access to employment and training services, make referrals to medical and support services, counselling, health promotion, and cultural activities.
All individuals staying in the facility are required to abstain from drug and alcohol use and staff are on site 24-hours a day.
According to the applicants, numerous studies have shown that transitional housing facilities have not led to an increase in crime in neighbourhoods, nor have property values been affected.
Justin Marchand, executive director of Ontario Aboriginal Housing, said the location on Junot Avenue is ideal and was chosen out of six other locations due to it being the most cost effective, access to education and services such as shopping and medical care, easy access to public transit routes, and the large plot of land to allow for cultural activities.
“We want to help people to learn how to live independently and gain control over the decisions that affect their lives,” he said. “All you have to do here today is say yes, say yes to supporting truth and reconciliation and say yes to helping more neighbours.”
The project has drawn both support and opposition from the community and members of city council.
Several public meetings have been held, including two at the Boys and Girls Club, one in June where neighbours expressed concerns about the city, and another in August where opinion appeared to shift to being in favour of the facility.
During the meeting, more than a dozen people came forward to speak out in support of the project.
Several people representing various community organizations, including the John Howard Society, the Indigenous Friendship Centre, and Roots to Harvest, said Junot Avenue is the best location for the facility and approving the bylaw amendment is a way for the city to move forward.
“I think this is the best and only location,” said Erin Beagle, a resident in the area and executive director of Roots to Harvest. We see this housing as a huge asset to the people we serve. We are excited to work with this project to offer employment and skill building to the young people who will live there.”
Others also pointed out that Indigenous youth seeking addictions treatment should not be automatically treated as criminals.
“I don’t understand why being an indigenous young adult who’s homeless automatically equates to being a criminal,” said Collen Peters with the John Howard Society.
“I want to disassociate the terms homeless and dangers,” Beagle added. “Many people tonight will try to link those terms and I want you to see past that.”
Bethann Cryderman, a mother living in the area, said she has seen the trauma Indigenous youth have experienced, including her own son who was beaten severely.
“I was so excited when I heard about this,” she said. “I spent a lot of years trying to help people with addictions, people with trauma. I had a boy three weeks ago beat up and ended up on my couch.”
“I phoned detox every hour for three days and never got a bed. How do you get people help? I want to know. I’ve been trying for many years to get people help.”
Those who spoke out against the proposed project included representatives of the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club.
Board president, Pat Suddaby, said the Boys and Girls Club is not opposed to the idea of the project, but feel the location is not suitable for youth transitional housing.
“We have been witness to the increasing and social issues that have been affecting the area around the club,” Suddaby said. “We feel the addition of a transition home in this location is not in the best interests of this community.”
Suddaby added that there was little consultation with neighbouring organizations and residents in the early stages of the project and their remains concerns with respect to certain aspect of the project, including what happens when a youth leaves the facility and if they will be exposed to drugs and crime that already exists in the area.
“So if they don’t succeed, so if they happen to go across the street and get drugs, where are they going to be?” Suddaby said. “They are going to be in our area. They are going to be around the kids in our area. So it may not be the people in the transition home today, but they could have been there yesterday.”
Lee-Ann Skirving, a program director with the Boys and Girls Club, added that she has spoken with many parents and kids at the Boys and Girls Club who say they are afraid to walk home from the centre in the neighbourhood.
“Some of them have talked to me and say they are concerned about the safety of the boys and girls club kids,” she said. “I agree with the project. The location I don’t. The project is amazing. I think it’s very much needed in the community.”
“It is young adults. It doesn’t matter what race it is,” Skirving continued. “It is a geographical issue. That’s it. And that issue is putting people with mental illness and drug addictions in the vicinity of kids, who are already scared to walk home.”
Several other residents in the area also came forward to speak out against the project, citing the high crime rate that already exists in the neighbourhood.
“It’s not a racial issue,” Ian Robson said. “It’s a public safety issue.”
“Even if this facility is built, there will still be drug houses across the street,” another opponent said. “If you pass this, what’s an acceptable failure rate? If one individual winds up making contact and getting drugs from those people, what’s the number? You are putting them at risk.”