Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative
The majority of Chatham councillors have no intent on transforming the W.I.S.H. Centre into a homeless shelter.
The temporary homeless shelter, currently housed at the Bradley Centre, will soon be moved as the pandemic dwindles down and services reopen. As a result, city staff were directed to present a report to council looking at long-term temporary (18-24 months) solutions for a homeless shelter.
Over the weekend it came out that one of the locations considered for the new temporary shelter is the W.I.S.H. Centre, leaving staff and community members concerned.
“We are aware that there is a need for a homeless shelter but the displacement of one program for another is not what we want to see happen,” said manager Tammy Lucas.
Lucas said a lot of programs would have to be dropped or relocated to inconvenient areas. The building currently houses youth after-school programs, community groups such as East Side Pride, and the Black Mecca Museum. The space is also used as a rental for sports and recreation activities, the Special Olympics, family reunions and small weddings.
“There’s no way we could have our programs at the same level at another place. Kids are bused directly to the front door, and (the W.I.S.H. Centre) is a central location to them,” she said. “It would be a loss to the community in that aspect.”
Over the weekend, the centre posted a call to action on their social media accounts, asking community members to write an email to councillors voicing the opinion that the shelter should be placed somewhere else.
However, Lucas stressed that the municipality was not kicking anyone out right now. The intent of their social media posts were to make the public aware of the value of the building for the past 24 years, and that it was being considered as an option.
Even Chatham councillors said the “save the W.I.S.H. Centre” movement is premature.
Chatham Coun. Marjorie Crew said she has no intention of supporting a homeless shelter at the W.I.S.H. Centre.
Crew said it is the jobs of staff to consider every building owned by the municipality as an option, the only reason it will come up on the report.
“Meeting with the W.I.S.H. Centre folk sent a ripple of ‘not the W.I.S.H. Centre’ throughout the community. But staff is directed to leave no stone unturned. I get why they are looking at it and I expected it to be on report. It has to be a complete report,” she said.
Crew said her desire to see W.I.S.H. remain intact is not a “not in my backyard” mentality but rather a “not in that building” opinion.
“It’s not meant for that and I’m not going to be supporting it,” she said.
Chatham Coun. Karen Kirkwood-Whyte and Brock McGregor said they also have no intention of supporting a homeless shelter at the W.IS.H. Centre, adding that the full report with all available options has not yet made its way into the hands of councillors.
Empty school buildings are also being considered as council has the right of first refusal when it comes to the sale of school board property.
Crew, who was also the former chair of East Side Pride, a community-based group aimed at elevating the living conditions of the neighbourhood, said she doesn’t think a homeless shelter would benefit the area, which has seen high crime rates and drug use.
“It would not help at all and would not advance the changes that we made,” she said.
Crew said there is a misconception that homeless shelters need to be placed right next to social services, however, she believes it needs to be put in any location that has access to a bus route.
Chatham Coun. Michael Bondy said he does not support the idea of running a homeless shelter under the municipal banner.
“Our policy has always been housing people until they find a permanent solution,” he said. “Once we get a shelter we are warehousing people and that is not the right thing to do.”
Bondy said he would much rather see volunteer programs, like Hope Haven’s shelter, running while the municipality cuts them a cheque.