The future of housing the homeless in Chatham-Kent could be up for discussion at a January municipal council meeting.
Polly Smith, director of employment and social services with the municipality, said staff is working on a proposal for what happens on June 1, 2025, when the lease on the current shelter at Victoria Park Place is up.
“We’re coming to council with a proposal, hopefully on Jan. 15, to help us work on the next steps. Nothing is approved yet,” she said.
Smith said she sees the shelter leaving its current Murray Street location.
“When we were given that opportunity (to move into Victoria Park Place), the owners at that time were pretty clear that it was a limited-time offer. That location is not a priority for us,” she said. “We’re looking at alternative locations. We’re looking at a variety of situations and narrowing them down to share with council.”
Meanwhile, the owners of the Victoria Park Place homeless shelter property are tired of being viewed as villains in the Tecumseh Park neighbourhood where the shelter is located.
In their eyes, when they stepped up in 2022, they saw a need and were quickly willing to go out of pocket to help some of Chatham-Kent’s most vulnerable people.
Fred Neclario, Don Tetrault, Ron Nydham, Rob Myers and the late Henry Heyink joined forces to purchase the former school for $1 million and turn around and lease it to the municipality for $1 a year until May 31, 2025.
“We got involved because there was no place for people to go,” Tetrault said. “In 15 minutes, we all bought the school together.”
At the time, the clock was ticking on the site of the emergency shelter. Residents had to be out at the end of May 2022 at what was then the Travelodge. It has since been converted into The Maples, a retirement living home.
Prior to being located at the Travelodge, the shelter was set up at the Bradley Centre, Smith said. But as the pandemic waned, the shelter had to move.
“We’ve been going from emergency to emergency. We hadn’t needed a shelter until the pandemic hit,” she said. “We were faced with nowhere to go. We used our own facility, at the Bradley Centre, and we had to leave there. It’s all been emergency planning.”
Smith said as soon as they moved the shelter to the Travelodge, staff began looking for the next location. Hope Haven in downtown Chatham was one option, but Smith said the Victoria Park Place location was a “better and cheaper option for us.”
The neighbours of the Murray Street facility are irate over the municipality moving the shelter to their area of Chatham. They say crime is up, and some don’t feel safe leaving their homes.
They’ve written to councillors, delivered deputations, and let the people who bought the building know about their disdain.
These days, the ownership group admits all the negativity is fatiguing.
“We bought it for $1 million and gave it to the city for $1 a year. And I get slammed with emails,” Myers said.
He said those emails contain criticisms, but no solutions. When one is offered, he said he’d be interested in supporting it.
“Tell me your solution. I’ll donate money if you come up with a great solution,” he said. “If someone has a better idea, please present it.”
Some of those ideas could land before council as early as Jan. 15.
Smith said the issue of homelessness is not going away.
“Homelessness is only growing. Thankfully in Chatham-Kent, it’s growing slowly,” she said. “Emergency housing is going to be our future, at least for a while.”
Regardless of where the shelter is located next, Smith knows there will be criticism from nearby residents or property owners.
She said despite the criticisms, she knows there is a common goal.
“Ultimately, we all want the same things. We want people to be housed and well and we want a safe community,” Smith said. “These situations (homelessness) make people sick. This hurts people’s bodies; their minds. The decisions we make can help prevent further harm.”
People who are unhoused are often unwell, leading to issues within neighbourhoods, she added.
“I think we have some opportunity to do good.”