By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The deal is done, but that doesn’t mean neighbours near Chatham’s new emergency homeless shelter aren’t frustrated with the decision to locate it in the vacant Victoria Park School.
At a tense public meeting March 29, angry residents packed Studio One at the Chatham Cultural Centre, armed with a host of questions for municipal officials.
The spectre of increased crime, coupled with the fact nearby residents were given little warning the shelter was headed to 185 Murray St. topped the list of concerns.
When questioning the panel, Dan Comiskey, whose family has lived in the neighbourhood for 100 years, was blunt.
“Where do you want us to put the needles?” Comiskey asked. “Because I’m the one that’s picking them up. This is my neighbourhood.”
The Prince Street resident said crime is already a problem in the east end – one the criminal justice system is having a hard time dealing with.
Police arrest criminals, he said, but many are back on the street within a 24-hour period.
Comisky said putting the shelter on Murray Street will add to the problem.
Like many others in the room, Comiskey said he wasn’t happy with the way the process was handled.
He said the municipality “railroaded” the shelter decision through, adding it wouldn’t have happened if the site wasn’t in Chatham’s east side.
His comments were met with applause.
But the officials responsible for overseeing housing supports for Chatham-Kent say existing crime is an ongoing community issue and not related to the operation of a shelter.
Polly Smith, Chatham-Kent’s executive director of employment and social services, said a wide range of people use the emergency shelter, not only the addicted and mentally ill.
“We have seniors, disabled people and people with brain injuries who have nowhere they can afford to be,” Smith told the crowd.
She said the municipality’s goal is not to establish a permanent shelter but instead hopes to transition back to a model of temporarily housing people in motels or other forms of affordable housing, such as the Indwell project, that are in the works.
Smith did her best to assure residents that in the past two years that the municipality has been operating an emergency shelter, many lessons have been learned.
Josh Myers, Chatham-Kent’s homelessness program manager, told the crowd the shelter is strictly monitored, adding it’s not a “free hostel.” Stayers are required to phone ahead to get a bed, as there are no drop-ins.
Myers said a curfew is enforced and clients must agree to follow programming designed to get them back on their feet.
“Studies show that the longer a person is homeless, the more their needs grow,” Myers explained.
He told the gathering that services – including a nurse and mental health and addiction supports, as well as food – will be located onsite so stayers won’t need to travel to access them.
They will be able to stay at the shelter 24-7 if necessary.
Myers told the crowd homelessness is on the rise in Chatham-Kent and the problem is not going away any time soon.
He said 17 new clients have accessed the Travelodge emergency shelter in the last three weeks alone.
When asked if the shelter decision could be reversed, general manager of community human services April Rietdyk told the crowd the decision has been made.
Rietdyk went on to say the purpose of the community meetings is to listen to concerns and work to see how the shelter can fit into the neighbourhood.
However, Rietdyk’s comment that “we are all put on this earth to take care of each other” was jeered by the audience.
“C’mon be real,” one woman said.
A recurring theme in the meeting was safety, as an Islamic school for children and youth, an early childhood education centre and a senior’s home are all located in the neighbourhood.
“What’s your plan to keep everyone in this room safe?” one man asked.
Panel member Sgt. Doug Cowell, who is part of the Chatham-Kent Police Services’ mobile crisis team, fielded a number of questions.
Cowell said police are going to be able to help the shelter “on the ground level,” and he encouraged residents to continue to report crimes.
Cowell said the property will be audited on a regular basis, incorporating safety by design principles. He also said patrols will be stepped up in the area in June when the CKPS bike patrols take to the streets.
Not everyone is against the shelter.
Faith Hale, executive director of the new Ska:Na Family Learning Centre, said the centre “will do the work it needs to do” to support public safety and help families in need.
“I ask you to be kind,” Hale told the crowd. “We’re going to do our job.”
When questioned as to why the shelter decision was left to the last minute, Smith said finding an appropriate spot was very challenging.
“By the time we got it (the site), we couldn’t postpone it any longer,” Smith explained, noting council had to make a “tough decision.”
Chatham-Kent council voted in favour of locating the shelter at the former Victoria Park school on March 21, two weeks after changing directions from the proposed Hope Haven in the downtown.
At the last minute, a group of local businessmen came forward, agreeing to purchase the building and lease it to the municipality for $1 a year until May 2025, but no longer.
After being encouraged by a resident to “come forward and take the heat,” councillors Clare Latimer, Brock McGregor, Anthony Ceccacci, Karen Kirkwood-Whyte, Marjorie Crew and Michael Bondy came to the front of the meeting to stand behind the panel.
A resident called out Bondy. However, he told his critic he ended up voting against the shelter after getting more information.
Both Kirkwood-Whyte and Crew said they are committed to listening to residents to make the shelter viable and keep the community safe.
Kirkwood-Whyte admitted the municipality had to make a snap decision.
“We got caught,” she said. “We got blindsided by the fact this issue needed to be addressed.”
Murray Street resident Michael Harvey criticized the process.
“This isn’t a consultation,” Harvey said. “It’s dictation. It’s insane.”