By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
East side Chatham residents worried about the implications of the new emergency shelter proposed for Murray Street are joining forces.
In a group interview with The Chatham Voice Sunday, several members of the Tecumseh Park Neighbourhood Association expressed dismay with the way the municipality has handled the prospect of a new shelter in their neighbourhood.
The group – 150 strong – want answers.
At the very least, said association member Paul Bourdeau, nearby residents want to see a concrete outline of how the shelter will be operated, with an emphasis on the way problems will be managed.
“We would like to see a plan and we would like written answers to our questions,” Bourdeau said.
“We’ve made a lot of suggestions so far of things we’d like to see happen, but these haven’t been addressed,” he said.
Dedicated police patrols, the installation of police cameras, improved lighting in the area, assurances that bio-waste such as dirty needles will be dealt with, and a detailed plan from the municipality of how the shelter will operate are among the items on the association’s wish list.
“We want a plan and we want accountability,” Bourdeau stressed, noting the municipality isn’t adhering to its own policies of “transparency and accountability” laid out in CK Plan 2035 vision for the future.
Martha Shultz, another member of the Chatham east side neighbourhood, said the association is seeking clarity.
“People are looking for answers to their questions,” Shultz said, adding residents can’t understand why a 50-bed shelter is being placed in a residential area.
There’s a problem of known drug houses operating in the vicinity, Shultz noted, adding it seems like officials are sidestepping the issues of addiction and mental health when it comes to homelessness.
“I am in opposition to placing a shelter within such close proximity to three drug houses,” Shultz said, noting statistics prove that addiction and substance abuse is the most commonly cited reason for the loss of housing.
Shultz, who lived beside a homeless shelter in Toronto for eight years, said she is not against a shelter, but doesn’t think a residential area – far from downtown services – is the right fit.
Anger over Chatham-Kent’s emergency homelessness shelter has been brewing for the past month.
On Mar. 7, the municipality was preparing to locate the shelter downtown at Hope Haven on Wellington Street.
Objections were raised about the location with downtown merchants and business associations opposing the move. A petition advocating against Hope Haven garnered nearly 500 signatures.
However, that plan was kiboshed when the municipality received “new information.” On March 21 council voted to allow the shelter to locate in the former Victoria Park School at 185 Murray St.
A group of investors purchased the vacant school and offered the municipality a three-year free rent deal.
Two public information meetings were subsequently held on March 29 and April 6. Tension ran high at both meetings, at times boiling over, with pointed anger directed at municipal employees and councillors.
On April 6, upset residents were vocal in their opposition with some openly yelling at the panel calling the public meeting a “show” and a “sham.”
One woman asked if the municipality was going to compensate property owners for a perceived decrease in real estate values.
St. Andrew’s United Church pastor Greg Simpson, who lives in the neighbourhood and supports the shelter, said people shouldn’t necessarily equate homelessness with drug addiction.
“These are two totally different issues,” Simpson said, adding homelessness “has many different shapes” and is best addressed by providing supports.
The shelter issue is further complicated by a tight timeframe. Currently housed at the Travelodge, the lease for the shelter expires on May 31.
Officials say some 50 people would have been turned out on the street if a location wasn’t found.
The Tecumseh Park Neighbourhood Association was founded a number of years ago, however its members say there’s been no activity for the past two years.