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Vilification and Voices: Barrie Council Faces Public Outcry over Policies Deemed ‘War on Homeless’

At the Community Safety Committee Meeting on September 19, 2023, Chief Administrative Officer Michael Prowse outlined the City of Barrie’s strategies to combat homelessness, initiated on May 17. The meeting allowed residents to participate in the democratic process for the first time in over four months since the council initiated what it referred to as policies to address chronic homelessness. However, activists, community leaders, and individuals facing homelessness have described these as a war on the homeless rather than on homelessness.

Prowse told the Council that the city, leveraging partnerships with County of Simcoe, is implementing initiatives aimed at providing essential social services, as it doesn’t directly offer any, while also actively soliciting public feedback to ensure the success of these initiatives.

The initiatives include securing support for addiction medical clinics, establishing a family reunification fund, and initiating a pilot shuttle for individuals released from correctional facilities. Additionally, the city, in collaboration with various partners, is addressing shelter and food needs by operating cooling centers, funding lunch programs during the pandemic, and arranging temporary shelters during winter.

To mitigate the housing crisis, the council is working towards approving 23,000 homes and has identified city-owned land parcels for potential sale to generate additional housing units. The city is committed to resolving homelessness through community engagement, partnerships, and multifaceted innovative solutions.

Following the meeting, many residents voiced their opinions. The majority of the speakers were notably critical of individuals experiencing homelessness and the supporting organization, the Busby Centre. Several property owners made unsubstantiated claims against the Centre, and such statements were allowed to pass without interruption by council members. It’s notable that in previous meetings, Councillor Sergio Morales, the chair of this meeting, has interrupted community activist Michael Speers for his critical views on the Barrie Police. A prevalent suggestion among speakers was advocating for police intervention to displace homeless individuals from downtown areas, despite the existence of a program designed to relocate them under the pretense of family reunification.

Toward the end of the meeting, a few speakers expressed support for people grappling with homelessness and mental health issues. They urged increased efforts in affordable housing, investments in warming centers, and establishment of safe consumption sites. However, some registered speakers like Sarah Tilley of the Gilbert Centre, couldn’t speak.

Christine Nayler from Ryan’s Hope countered the prevailing narrative of homeless residents being a threat, citing statistical evidence and illustrating incidents where homeless individuals were targeted. She emphasized the necessity to address such harmful behaviors. Susan Eagle of Grace United Church criticized the family reunification program for potentially displacing homeless non-natives. Councillor Nigussie, a refugee and the first black councillor, is criticized for supporting it.

Local advocate Jennifer van Gennip voiced her concerns over the city and county staff’s reductionist approach to homelessness, saying, “It feels like homelessness has been reduced to a checklist,” and hoped for a revised contract for more frequent operation of warming centers. She advocated for a human-rights approach, permanent supportive housing, and expressed willingness to collaborate to develop affordable housing through Redwood Park Communities.

Michael Speers criticized a motion targeting the city’s homeless population and proposed amendments like the inclusion of a 24/7 cooling and warming center, along with support for a supervised consumption site. He also suggested a 10% reduction in the police budget to reallocate resources to meaningfully address social issues.

Mayor Alex Nuttall appeared upset during Speers’ speech, and none of the council members were seen taking notes, contrasting when deputants were criticizing homeless people and the Busby Centre.

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