Mayor Ian Boddy and Member of Owen Sound City Council

I attended last night’s meeting of Owen Sound City Council. City Manager Tim Simmonds was asked by Mayor Boddy to respond to a question from a member of the public – Francesca Dobbyn, Executive Director of United Way Bruce Grey, and a member of the Save the Bandstand group. Dobbyn had asked Council why the city had posted closed signs on the bandstand, which was being used by unhoused people as shelter.

Simmonds responded, “for safety”. When asked a follow-up question about what had happened to the city signs, he replied that staff had found them after they were vandalized.

In fact, the signs were removed as a symbolic protest by people who had been sleeping there. They removed the signs and reposted them on the doors of city hall with a message “Reopened by the poor.”

Commenting further on the issue of the closed bandstand, Counselor John Tamming commented on the unsightly encampments, old mattresses, and debris, that discourage shoppers, tourists, and families from visiting downtown Owen Sound.

There are many reasons why Owen Sound residents may not want people living in the city’s parks, riverfront, and surrounding woodlands. However, the people living there often don’t want to be there either, and this seems to get lost in a debate that smears the street community as dirty, lazy, and dangerous.

Tensions have been high between the street community and other Owen Sound residents in past months. Members of the broader community have raised concerns about the growing number of unhoused people, saying they feel unsafe and threatened, symptoms of a growing crisis.

As MP Alex Ruff made clear at the recent Grey Bruce Housing Crisis Summit, Owen Sound and surrounding areas are all facing an affordable housing and homelessness crisis and they are unprepared.

Concerns over who is meant to use public space and how that space should be used are currently motivating the response to homelessness in this community. These concerns shape perceptions of community belonging, use and access to social services, and public safety. Importantly these concerns have also shaped how law enforcement has become involved in the response to homelessness.

However, instead of empathy and solutions, the city’s most vulnerable have been levelled with accusations that they are dangerous drug addicts who can’t find employment and pose a threat to parks, businesses, and residents.

What Can Be Done?

Rewriting the Narratives on Homelessness” – published by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness provides an opportunity to engage mid-sized urban cities across Canada in challenging misperceptions about homelessness, safety, and security. They provide suggestions on how to make progress towards ending homelessness by evaluating and reimagining mid-size cities’ working relationships with people experiencing homelessness, Indigenous Peoples, all levels of government, local service providers, and law enforcement.

They offer 9 opportunities to change the way mid-sized communities across Canada respond to homelessness, beginning by changing the misperceptions and misunderstandings and prejudices.

he first step towards deconstructing this crisis is to change the way we talk about and work on providing what members of the street community really want: safe housing. This change requires skill in understanding and leading culture change and social planning, capacities beyond the scope of the current City of Owen Sound council, executive staff or human resources.

Raising awareness about how health, housing, employment, social standing, and other factors modify the ability of the local economy to enrich livelihoods starts with you as city leaders.

Your language makes a difference when you describe unhoused people as dangerous threats to citizen’s safety. Regardless of whether someone has a home, we should treat them with human respect, empathy, and dignity. Focusing on homelessness as a safety issue, as city officials and others continue to do, stokes insecurity, anger, and fear. It does not lead us towards common ground, solutions, and empathy.

When the conversation pits us against one another, we risk losing sight of the bigger picture: this is about providing housing to those who don’t have it. This is about access to basic supports that many of us take for granted. Most importantly, this is about other people — people who are often facing very difficult circumstances.

Despite the challenging circumstances faced by many in the street community, Owen Sound City Council has not yet begun to strategically address the homelessness crisis, as other cities are doing, based on the inclusion of people involved and using a housing first model.

By marginalizing the voices of the people involved, neglecting their concerns, or portraying them as lazy or dangerous, we fail to extend basic human empathy to people with next to nothing. Pragmatically, this lack of empathy also makes it harder to find solutions to the issue by heightening tensions and obscuring what really matters.

Current council may not be ready to address the crisis of homelessness, but we can all make small changes in our language that make a big difference in combating the stigma of homelessness.

By recognizing the humanity of people who are homeless, we can begin to address the underlying forces that contribute to and exacerbate homelessness.

Thank you for being a part of the effort to end homelessness in our city.

Pat Kelly, Owen Sound