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Year in review: Homelessness issue comes to a head in 2021

Tent communities in city parks, panhandlers on dozens of corners and questions abound about how Greater Sudbury can manage the crisis
Homeless-(2019)Sized

The homelessness crisis was ever-present in the headlines of 2021, in Ontario, in the North, and in Sudbury, specifically. 

Many of those interviewed over the year told Sudbury.com that the existing gaps in the social systems designed to help those who are in need were blown open by the COVID-19 pandemic. These issues, paired with Sudbury’s dubious distinction of having the highest death rate, per capita, in the entire province, created several encampments across the city, the largest being Memorial Park, the centre of the city with a view to the Greater Sudbury Police Station and Tom Davies Square. On October 19, the Point in Time count would show that there were 398 people without a home in Sudbury. 

In the downtown core for early 2021 was STOPS, the Sudbury Temporary Overdose Prevention Society. Made up of volunteers, STOPs offered a place for those who use drugs to do so in a safe and supervised location. This puts their clients in a position to receive medical care if the need arises, but at the same time, it provides a support system. 

Since May 2019, the STOPS pop-up clinic has had nearly 300 visitors and has reversed 14 overdoses. It could be said that some of those 300 visitors could have had issues if not for the prevention aspects of the temporary overdose prevention society. A statement issued by the group stated the opioid crisis has taken four times as many lives of Sudburians than that of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the death toll from opioid overdoses in Sudbury doubled from 2019 to 2020. 

In May of 2021, to be specific 4 p.m. on May 21, the Friday of a long weekend, city officials issued a trespassing notice to STOPS. The notice to trespass was extended to all city property. It also states that breaching the notice, police may be notified to enforce the order.

Co-founder Karla Ghartey said she believes it is in retaliation for the Poverty and Housing Advocacy Coalition’s (PHAC) “sit-in protest” that occurred at the YMCA building at Memorial Park, and STOPS continued fundraising, heightened as of late by the groups view of an increasing need.

This year brought news of the approval of a funded and legal temporary supervised consumption site, now in progress in what is known as Energy Court, off of Lorne Street in Sudbury and proximal to the downtown core. The site needed to be easily accessible by those who would use it, but also close to the other services needed to help someone who wishes to stop using drugs. A majority of these services are located in downtown Sudbury. 

Also in the downtown core is Memorial Park, and adjacent to it, the YMCA, the centre of several controversial evictions, and one that almost happened: the result of what the city called a miscommunication between themselves, and Royal Canadian Legion Branch 564, who wanted the park cleared for Remembrance Day ceremonies, to be held in the park for the first time in 36 years. 

It was May when an attempt was made to remove those living beneath the YMCA parking garage that sits next to Memorial Park, a popular place to escape the winter elements. With less room in the shelters thanks to COVID, and with many preferring to stay anywhere but the shelter due to fear of COVID, violence, and theft, the place had become popular as a place to stay warm.

Several shelters had been built of tarps and cardboard, and on May 12, bylaw officers attempted, through discussion, to remove those living there. The bylaw officers were met by outreach workers and protesters carrying signs indicating that with no affordable housing available, it was cruel to dismantle the shelters. 

But there was also an indication from outreach workers on the scene that there was a sense of confusion on the part of bylaw officers on what to do about the encampment and a lack of coordination on how to proceed.

“Bylaw officers expressed to us when we got there that they were expecting Redcoats to show up with a plan of where to go,” he said.

‘Redcoats’ is a common name among those who work with the homeless for outreach workers with the Sudbury Homelessness Network.

SACY worker Joel Boivin said at the time he worried the people leaving the encampment would scatter, leaving them less likely to seek help, more likely to encounter danger, and even, more likely to die. 

“Scattering means Isolation,” he said. “And that means that we have to search to find out folks, to make sure they get what they need. Even adding COVID to that. If we have someone who tests positive on a rapid test, and then we can’t find them, that’s trouble.”

He said that this will make the direct support work he does much harder.

“In addition to trying to help these folks, give them medical care, food, even friendship, we have to search the whole city trying to find them every time they are displaced. That never helps.”

This was a common refrain throughout the dismantlings that followed, that it not only made it difficult on the people who were being removed with no other place to go, but the additional burden placed on direct support workers. 

Coming as a shock to park residents and outreach workers, the encampment built in Memorial Park was dismantled by city bylaw enforcement officers June 30.

The teardown comes on the same day that the overnight, drop-in warming centre at YMCA Sudbury closed. The new cooling centre (which does not operate overnight) run by Sudbury Action Centre for Youth didn’t open until July 1.

Sudbury.com was on the scene minutes after the teardown began and witnessed outreach workers trying to find out what was happening, how they could provide for those now displaced and where the belongings that were loaded into City of Greater Sudbury vehicles was being taken and could be retrieved. But not for 48 hours, as the eviction preceded the Canada Day holiday.

Bylaw and parks employees with the City of Greater Sudbury spent several hours on August 12 once again removing people living in Memorial Park; this eviction tinged with anger and violence. 

More than 20 tents were set up before the 10 a.m. arrival of bylaw officers and city workers, and while they allowed the people residing in the tents to move of their own accord — to a degree — the message was clear. These people were to leave the park, and do so immediately.

One man began destroying his own possession while staring at the bylaw officers; another approached the bylaw officers with a golf club before being talked down by outreach workers on scene. 

The dismantling seemed to be particularly emotional for those involved compared to others witnessed over the past year by Sudbury.com. Several members of the encampment were crying, hugging and shouting at bylaw officers. 

One woman, while packing her things from underneath the pavilion as a minimum of six bylaw officers, 10 city parks employees and several bystanders watched, yelled “I should have sold tickets for this, then I could have made money at least.”  

Another said, “It’s not like if we’re not here, we’re no longer a problem.”

One man questioned a bylaw officer directly, not aggressively, but passionately. He asked “Why are you doing this?” The bylaw officer, regretfully, shook his head and pointed behind him at Tom Davies Square, the tower overlooking the park. 

The man in the park yelled again, echoing the call of many, “Well, get the higher ups out here then.”

The next day, the pavilion in the centre of the park was removed, and two uniformed security guards were in its place. 

After all the dismantling events, Sudbury.com requested an interview with the City of Sudbury. A statement was often sent instead. It contained a listing of the shelters available in the city, as well as a version of the following quote from Aug. 12

“We have received complaints and concerns about the well-being of people who have set up tents in Memorial Park. Security enforcement officers have attended the area numerous times to offer support, resources and community outreach services to those experiencing homelessness. During these visits, it has been made clear that overnight camping is not allowed in this area under the city's Parks and Zoning bylaws. Written reminders of the bylaws were also recently provided, along with information on accessible support services in the downtown”

Sudbury.com decided to find out why people wouldn’t stay in a shelter. Turns out it is fear of violence, of COVID, privacy issues and of having things lost or stolen. 

Fears of COVID were made real in 2021 with an outbreak in Memorial Park spurring a testing and vaccination program, while those who tested positive were isolated at a motel. 

Fear of loss made true as well: the deaths of three people in 30 days in Memorial Park. 

The latter half of the year has also seen a change in crisis strategy from the City of Sudbury, moving from the dismantling and eviction of those living in the encampments to the outreach-based housing strategy now taking place. After the hiring of Iain De Jong, consultant and author of The Book on Homelessness, staff and city council proceeded with what could be considered a more informed and evidence-based approach; it took the form of increased housing subsidies, bridge subsidies like the rental of motel rooms for intermediate support and what e Jong considered  

De Jong spoke to Sudbury.com on September 28 regarding his report to the city. The hiring of De Jong and the subsequent guide he produced for the city was "the best money the city has spent in a long time" said Denis Constantineau, executive director of the Centre de santé communautaire.

Moving forward with the approach outlined in De Jong’s guide, the city said in November that they had housed 15 people from the encampments, and that number is around 30 now.  

But now, there is more affordable housing needed, as well as transitional housing and care for those struggling with mental health and addiction issues. 

On Dec. 17, the Poverty and Housing Advocacy Coalition (PHAC) held a protest at Tom Davies Square, with six demands for the Ford Government, demands they felt were beyond the city. PHAC member Laurie McGauley told Sudbury.com at the demonstration that the group  “started off by focusing on the city, because the city at that point was tearing down encampments, and we were trying to stop the destruction of encampments,” said McGauley. “But we've now decided we need to start focusing on the Ford government, because we can see the city is now struggling to try and respond to this crisis. But the crisis originates from the province and the federal government; it originates from those policies, it doesn't originate from municipal policies.”