Debate over homeless shelter location continues

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By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The issue on where to locate a new overnight shelter in Chatham is being put off pending further investigation.

At its March 7 meeting, council voted to push the matter to no later than April 4, to allow administration to check out a couple of new options that were brought to the municipality’s attention late last week.

Chatham Coun. Karen Kirkwood-Whyte brought the motion forward asking for more time.

“We need to hear more about these additional options,”

Kirkwood-Whyte told council so elected officials can make the best decision.

She said the municipality should consider fast-tracking the new Indwell supported housing facility that’s going in at the old St. Agnes School, citing statistics from a new similar facility in St. Thomas, which led to a huge drop in calls for assistance from its residents.

Originally, the municipality recommended that Chatham-Kent enter into a partnership with Hope Haven to operate a 27-bed shelter in downtown Chatham on Wellington Street.

However, Dr. April Rietdyk, Chatham-Kent’s general manager of community services, said a couple of “alternative solutions” were brought forward late in the week.

Rietdyk did say administration left “no stone unturned” when preparing the original report, but added the municipality is “willing to take another look.

“These options were not available to us at the time,” Rietdyk said.

The lease for the shelter currently located at the Chatham Travelodge is coming to an end and a new home for the service needs to be found by May.

The new options were not revealed at the meeting, but Rietdyk did say the municipality hoped to continue to partner with Hope Haven.

More than an hour’s worth of deputations on the issue were read out at the meeting, with many in favour of locating the shelter in Chatham’s downtown core.

But there were also many who don’t see Hope Haven on Wellington Street as a good fit, including members of the Chatham-Kent Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Chatham Historic BIA.

Nest Realty owner Meg Lyttle is a downtown business owner who is one of those opposed to a shelter being located in Chatham’s core.

The Voice reached out to Lyttle as she is one of 218 names on a Change.org petition that called on the mayor and council to vote against Hope Haven as the site of an overnight shelter.

Lyttle has had three different locations in Chatham’s core since she first set up shop in 2015. Nest is currently nestled in at 150 Wellington St., east of Hope Haven’s 183 Wellington St. location

She said she’s watched the problems associated with homelessness increase over the past six years.

“It has gone from bad to worse,” Lyttle said, citing several tense situations Nest Realty employees have had with people she believes were likely associated with Hope Haven’s current day program.

“We no longer feel safe in our downtown and that is not the Chatham we love,” Lyttle said.

The business owner said she and her employees have had their fair share of vandalism and threats of violence – so much so she keeps the doors to the business locked most of the time.

Lyttle said she sympathizes with the plight of the homeless, but she believes a downtown location for a shelter is not the answer.

“Over the last few years, we have seen some significant growth and development in C-K,” Lyttle said in an e-mail statement. “Many entrepreneurs have poured their hearts into opening new vibrant businesses downtown.”

The petition, started last week by downtown businessman Andrew Thiel, is gaining traction.

It states that “downtown Chatham is not the place to have a homeless/emergency shelter.”

It also states that when Hope Haven was in full operation in 2019, “merchants were physically assaulted, properties were damaged, people were sleeping in ATM rooms, cars were vandalized, panhandling was out of control and the overall feeling was that downtown Chatham was not safe.”

The petition acknowledges the need to help homeless people who may be facing mental health or addiction issues, but it proffers locating in the downtown is “not a good fit.”

The complex issue of homelessness continues to plague communities across Southwestern Ontario. According to recent data, local homelessness has grown by about 150 per cent since December 2019.

On any given night there are some 200 C-K residents without a place to stay with around five households a week accessing emergency housing for the first time.

Municipal officials believe Hope Haven is well positioned to provide a permanent shelter as it has successfully operated a day program throughout the pandemic as well as offering overnight respite during extreme weather.

Polly Smith, director of employment and social services in Chatham-Kent, said many people in the community need help and support.

“No one likes homelessness,” Smith said in a recent media statement, noting people need a safe place and services to “get back on their feet” and into a permanent home.

“We believe that together in a partnership with Hope Have we can build a program that meets the community’s needs, and is part of a larger system of care,” Smith explained.

Since the inception of its emergency housing unit in April 2020, the municipality has helped 472 households return to stable housing.

At Hope Haven, which provided overnight shelter for the homeless prior to the pandemic, 12,049 visitors were assisted in 2021 with services such as food, showers and access to the Internet.

Hope Haven general manager Loree Bailey, said there is “no question” an emergency program is needed.

“It feels like a very natural transition after five years of serving this population that we welcome a municipal partnership at the Haven,” Bailey said.

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