- by Leigh Bursey

As precarious housing options multiply across Ontario, and the cost of renting continues to outpace minimum wage, homelessness continues to explode. With the explosion of rural and remote homelessness across the province, so with it does a pandemic of futility. And while both prescription and street-level illicit drug use are at an all-time high, to simply write off homelessness as the result of poor decision-making is short-sighted.

In the small city of Owen Sound, the growing illustrations of desolation and desperation are in many ways still foreign to the population.
In a June 21st, 2020 article from the Owen Sound Times entitled “It's Summertime and the Homeless Are Setting Up Camps,” staff journalist Scott Dunn delved deep into the issue. Exploring the growth in tent encampments, the article exposed the reservations and frustrations of local residents and law enforcement in a direct and relatable way.

Special Constable Jason Cranny was quoted as saying “Last year (2019), homeless people began setting up tents and tarps downtown in plain sight, something new here.” He continued that “We didn’t come across as many as we thought there might have been,” but he noted that “There were definitely people who had taken up residence in all the spots” they had visited at some point “because there was enough debris that was left behind, personal items, clothing.”

In the article, Constable Cranny also revealed that 2019 saw a rise in new faces who had started utilizing the community’s downtown drop-in centre, noting an increasing number of transient visitors from other communities outside of Owen Sound. He noted that the drop-in centre guests “were younger, with more drug problems,” with male clients significantly outnumbered female clients.

Thus is the plight of a small urban centre within a rural backdrop. As a hub for commerce, social services, health care services, and public transportation, it is most often these small centre’s that become an attraction to those seeking enhanced addiction services, a fresh start, and greater opportunities for prosperity. Unfortunately, as is too commonly evidenced, this does not always mean that the community is prepared to meet the growing needs of poverty and mental health supports.

Couple this with some outdated opinions about those struggling with precarious housing and homelessness, and those struggling might find themselves battling against a rising current of ignorance.

The same article noted that “City bylaw (enforcement) ensured people weren’t on private property,” and that “when they get a complaint, they warn first by issuing a notice, followed by enforcement if necessary,” according to the Owen Sound Constable. What that doesn’t account for is the disdain that many in the public and business community exhibit towards their area rough sleepers.

In a recent November 2020 article by the same publication, journalist Dennis Langlois showcased a very different and controversial side to the debate about local homelessness.

millerproperty3The aptly titled article “Site Cleared of Trees Due to Homeless Encampment, Company Says” reads like a devastating review of prejudice. Highlighting that local company White Owl took an extreme route towards evicting local homeless campers from their vacant property.
The article noted that “a waterfront property across from the Grey Bruce Health Unit has been largely cleared of trees and brush due to concerns about a homeless encampment on the site, according to a spokesperson for the company that owns the lot in Owen Sound.”

More devastating yet was the further revelation that according to Jay Harding of White Owl, “the company doesn’t have any development plans for its property on 17th Street East at this time.” Meaning that removing the tent encampment from a vacant and underused property was and is more of a priority than developing the property for any commercial or industrial use. In other words, the company would rather the property currently remain vacant than have it occupied by those that may have needed it. So much so that they were willing to spend funds in destroying any possibility of its previous use.

When asked for context to justify their decisions, White Owl was unapologetic.
As noted in that same article, Harding explained quite harshly that “The reason that we were cleaning this property up is because there was homeless people living in the forest and the [city] has asked us to do something about it and our way of getting rid of the people is to take away the hiding spots.”
With work to remove the woodlands commencing in October, this decision led to some mild public outcry, but the media coverage has long since muted.

One media outlet that has been following this story is online platform, the Owen Sound Hub. When asked for comments on this situation for this article, Owen Sound Hub owner/operator Anne Finlay-Stewart did not mince words.
“More than a year ago, before COVID-19 was even on the local radar, the Director of Housing for Grey County called the rapid increase in rental costs, and lack of supply a ‘perfect storm’. With evictions, winter weather, the need to safely isolate, and no new income options, the situation is even more dire in 2021.”

In 2019, Grey County announced a plan to cut chronic homelessness in half. An incredible collection of charitable organizations and services providers have been working in tandem to address the challenging dilemmas of service delivery. Incredible strides are being made that include committees dedicated to pandemic homelessness, enhanced focus on homelessness supports in their redeveloped Housing and Homelessness Master Plan, and great programs like the aforementioned downtown Owen Sound drop-in program. While all of these programs deserve kudos for keeping this growing concern on top of the legislative agenda, the attitude of some in the business community may need to change.

Referring to “getting rid" of homeless people is not the same as eradicating homelessness. In fact, talking callously about human life as being problematic is a direct route to further division, further isolation, more criminalization, and a greater community divide.

While it has been suggested that many of those former inhabitants of the destroyed tent encampment have long since been housed, Anne notes her apprehension to believing that to be permanently the case. For her readers, the focus becomes “where are they now?”

Similar issues have sprouted up and multiplied in smaller, comparable communities across the nation. Complications stemming from many of the same root cause issues have seen tent encampments explode.

How is a similar situation is being dealt with here in Brockville Ontario,  a comparable municipality with the same population?

In recent months, a tent encampment on commercial property gained considerable notoriety. As the subject of both print media focus, and social media buzz, these area campers were not met with the same disdain or disregard.

While the camp would remain standing even today, it was populated with various sleepers between September and December before finally being abandoned. The space became crowded with refuse and charitable donations made by concerned citizens and area support groups eager to assist the occupants. With a plethora of hot meals, tarps, tents, blankets, and weatherized clothing, the problems that this space were home to were almost an exact opposite contrast.

A tent city is no excuse for a home. And eventually this space was deemed no longer suitable. While rumors percolated that people had ransacked the space, damaged tents, destroyed foods, and made attempts to intimidate the inhabitants, one thing that illustrates a significant difference between the two comparable cities is how the business community responded.

Management staff at the 1000 Islands Mall (which are the rightful owners responsible for the wooded space that had become home to the tent encampment) worked diligently with Brockville Police Services, city hall management, and Brockville Fire Services to ensure that anyone who had lived there previously were given ample time to collect their belongings before any considerations were made to demolishing the abandoned space. Even now, as a new year's snow covers what used to be a home for those often forgotten or discarded, remnants of the camp are still standing while every possible effort is made to handle the issue with diligence, care and compassion. After spending months looking the other way, the mall and all parties involved are more focused on the long-term safety of our city's homeless population than if their presence was detrimental to commerce.

There may not be a simple solution to the jumbled issues that tent encampments may contribute to, but there are compassionate ways to deal with these scenarios. And while one could argue which complication is preferred, one thing for certain is that the optics of a messy woodland are less damaging than the optics of a private enterprise deciding to “get rid of those people".

Now, as the second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc across the province of Ontario, patience and compassion have never been more relevant. And one can’t help but wonder if these and other communities are prepared for the homelessness fallout of the pandemic winter and summer of 2021.

Leigh Bursey is a 33-year-old three-term City Councillor in Brockville, Ontario (pop.22,000)  Leigh is a director for Brockville Pride, and a member of the Canadian National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness lived experience working group. He is also Executive Director of Tiny Home Alliance Canada. Leigh is an author, musician, talk show host, activist, and a pro wrestler. Leigh is a former homeless youth, a punk rocker and a public speaker.


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