As some downtown businesses struggle to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, they face another challenge – convincing customers the area is safe and suitable for visiting despite a swell of people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues and/or addiction in public spaces.
“This is not a downtown issue. We didn’t create it … but it plays out here,” Marty Williams, executive director of the Downtown Guelph Business Association told council, which met Monday as the committee of the whole. “We need to hold some people accountable (for helping those individuals) and figure out what’s not working.”
Throughout the pandemic, but especially during recent months, council heard the downtown has been witness to “constant” selling and using of hard drugs, increased thefts, public defecation, bricks thrown through vehicle windows, overflowing waste cans and more.
“I have never witnessed anything close to what we’re experiencing in the downtown,” commented Barb Minett, co-founder of The Bookshelf, which has operated on Quebec Street for several decades. “These people … they need more help.”
Providing more aid to people living or congregating in the downtown will in turn allow business to focus more on economic recovery and less in their de facto role as “social service providers,” commented Mayor Cam Guthrie.
“I have heard very clearly, but also seen very clearly, the issues playing out in our downtown,” he said, pointing out the number of people accessing drop-in, food and other services at Royal City Mission has seen a more than three-fold increase in the past six months, from 250 unique individuals to about 860. “If that stat alone doesn’t explain what an emergency this is, I don’t know what would.
“These people are struggling. Our hearts go out to these people.”
In response to the situation, the committee unanimously approved a series of motions aimed at finding solutions or at least moving in that direction.
They include endorsing the Ontario Big City Mayors recent call for "an emergency meeting with the province to address the chronic homelessness, mental health, safety, and addictions crisis" as well as advocating for the province to immediately raise Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program rates above the poverty line.
As far as the County of Wellington goes, Guelph council asked for quarterly updates on how social services are being provided on the city’s behalf, including performance reporting and key performance indicators, along with asking county council to call an “emergency meeting to hear from and respond to community social service providers with respect to urgent needs related to homelessness, mental health and addiction issues.”
The committee is also asking for county officials to work alongside city staff and other stakeholders to identify any gaps in the existing shelter system “with the goal of 24 hour shelter coverage” and report back by August with a plan to achieve around the clock coverage.
Committee members further endorsed the creation of a new subcommittee of the Mayor’s Taskforce on Homelessness and Community Safety, to be known as the Strategic Advisory Group on Downtown Issues, though Guthrie noted the group would be formed even without council’s approval, it just wouldn’t include a city staff member in discussions.
Lastly, the committee agreed to provide the subcommittee with $50,000 in unspent money from the mayor and council training, travel and conference budget in order to support its work and fund whatever it deems to be most needed.
There was substantial discussion about possibilities for spending those dollars – from increasing the police presence downtown or beefing up bylaw enforcement there, to hiring security to offer more public washrooms, but in the end that’s been left up to the subcommittee to decide.
All of that is pending ratification of the motions, which will be on the agenda for consideration during council’s July 18 meeting.
“Absolutely, it is a state of emergency,” Cara McKillop, owner of Plant, told the committee. “Simply because people are struggling doesn’t mean they’re not going to be accountable to the law.”
The downtown has seen some steps taken to address the situation as of late, Guthrie noted. That includes the addition of a second, dedicated downtown police officer and the filling of a vacant position within the Welcoming Streets initiative, which aims to help people connect with services in the community.
“We’re dealing with a population that has a lot of needs,” added Coun. Rodrigo Goller, who noted the city provided Wellington County with $23.5 million for social services this year and is on tap to pitch in another $24 million next year. “We are putting a big chunk of money to these issues.”
He further pointed out several supportive housing projects are at various stages of development in the city. Once completed, they could collectively provide up to 100 units to house people currently experiencing homelessness.