We have no doubt that the powers that be in this city are serious in their efforts to address the homelessness crisis that has gripped Sudbury.
But if you set out to provide help to people, good intentions will only get you so far.
In January, Sudbury.com reporter Jenny Lamothe made an overnight visit to the taxpayer-funded warming centre located on the main floor of Tom Davies Square. Her visit was prompted by information shared with her by several of her sources in the homelessness outreach community.
Those sources described the centre as a powder keg waiting to go off. They spoke about insufficient and untrained staff, overcrowding, lack of supplies and issues with cleanliness. They also spoke about disorganization and a lack of leadership.
Good intentions, but poor execution.
The homelessness situation in the city is plain to see. While the encampment in Memorial Park has shrunk considerably since the summer when dozens of tents occupied the site, there are still a few tents there. There are panhandlers at dozens of intersections around the city.
The warming centre was not and is not intended to be a permanent fix to the problem. It is intended as a stopgap only.
The centre, which is currently operated by the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth (SACY), is running until May with a budget that has ballooned to $82,000 a month, more than twice the original cost of operating during the day only.
Stopgap or no, the issues Sudbury.com uncovered cannot continue.
The centre has an occupancy rating of 32 people, but is often well above that limit. This makes sense to us considering it is winter in Northern Ontario and breaching the fire code on humanitarian grounds seems a fair trade off to letting a person freeze to death on the street.
But the high client to staff ratio, especially when that clientele has a higher incidence of addiction and mental health challenges, and the fact many carry weapons to defend themselves on the street, makes cramming all those people into a tight space risky for everyone.
SACY and the city told us there is a constant security presence, but again, outreach workers say otherwise and during Lamothe’s 30-minute visit in the dead of night, she did not see a single security guard, just four workers to more than 40 clients.
Warming centre staff have had to reach out to outreach workers to access additional Narcan supplies when theirs has run out or when, even more problematically, they cannot locate their own supply. Narcan temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose and is a necessary mediation to have on hand considering the high level of opioid addiction among the centre’s clients. For centre staff not to know where their supply is speaks to a concerning level of disorganization. While rumours of inappropriate relationships between staff and clients, drug use and drug-dealing swirl around the centre, we have not been able to confirm them, though we have not been able to refute them either.
These are serious safety concerns.
SACY and the city say the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame for the staffing issues, and we are sure there is truth in that. Many sectors are facing shortages thanks to isolation requirements after exposure.
Lack of staff, though, does not explain what appears to be a lack of co-ordination and poor planning on the part of the operator, SACY, and the funder and host, the City of Greater Sudbury.
We have to wonder why the downtown task team, created by Mayor Brian Bigger in the fall of 2020 to address issues of violence and homelessness in the city core, has not provided any updates on its work since May, 2021. Made up of representatives from the city, police, the health-care sector, and the Indigenous and business communities, the task team seems the perfect forum to help the warming centre identify its issues and address them.
We also have to wonder why, despite the need, there is no co-ordinated effort from upper levels of government to address what seems to be rising homelessness. Again, we are given stopgaps, not solutions.
As has been detailed in our own coverage and in others, there is a lack of a strategic approach to homelessness. The federal and provincial governments throw gobs of money at the issue and leave municipalities to figure it out, even though the mechanisms to help address homelessness stem from policies outside of municipal control.
There is a lack of affordable housing for people on social assistance and a lack of transitional housing to help people get off the street. Accessing mental health care for homeless people, who tend to have a higher incidence of mental illness than the general population, is well nigh impossible. The opioid crisis continues to burn through the homeless population and to create more homelessness.
It seems to us SACY and the city are doing the best they can faced with a flood of people who need help, but the problem is much bigger than any one city can manage. It requires a provincial and perhaps national response.
That said, in the meantime, the valuable service the warming centre provides must continue, but the issues there have to be addressed and quickly. People’s health and security depend on it.
Sudbury.com's editorial opinion is determined by an editorial board made up of senior staff.