It was not your typical venue in which Mayor Joe Preston was able to meet with constituents.
Thursday morning’s face-to-face with frustrated downtown merchants played out along a back alley that every morning is littered with discarded drug paraphernalia and other detritus of the downtrodden.
It’s a habitat for the homeless and those with mental health issues who utilize back doorsteps and alcoves as personal relief stations.
Hidden from passersby on Talbot Street, it’s where staff often find the less fortunate huddled, unconscious or attempting to harm themselves.
It was against this desperate backdrop that a dozen or so core merchants – already pummelled financially by the pandemic – pleaded with Preston to return this stretch of the downtown corridor to a more inviting destination for shoppers.
“It’s not good,” stressed Patti Mugford of Mugford Shoes. “It’s not good for us and it’s not good for our city. And it’s not good for our customers.
“We’ve been in this block for 55 years and we don’t know what to do. We have no answers.”
That was the genesis for the invitation to Preston to meet on their troubled turf.
As the mayor interrupted Mugford with the comment, “I’m looking for answers from you,” you could feel the frustration mount.
Mugford continued, “We definitely cannot deal with what’s going on right now. Our customers won’t come to the store. They’ve told us this.
“We know other retailers in this particular core where customers used to come to our store. They don’t want to get out of their cars, they can’t park.”
At this point she pointed to signs that say ‘No Loitering,’ “and they are loitering and sleeping. This is the heart of our downtown.”
“This is the St. Thomas we know and love.”
What can the city do to help us out was the common refrain from the business owners?
And, they recognize the plight of the homeless and those impacted by mental health issues.
But there is a pressing need to work together and find a solution.
“Well the city can come and listen to you and hear what you think solutions might be,” responded Preston.
You had the sense most merchants standing around Preston at that point were thinking that’s why we have elected officials, to devise solutions to our problems and concerns.
The heart of the issue is attempting to integrate social services facilities with your downtown commercial area and convince shoppers to continue to patronize them.
The particular block in which these merchants ply their trade includes the Mickleborough Building, the former social services hub for the city and now a temporary drop-in centre for the homeless.
And, across the street, the post office seems to be a particularly enticing magnet for those with no place to go.
During the one-hour session with Preston, an unfortunate soul spread out on the ground with his worldly possessions wailed and vented against the demons that inhabit his life.
“I understand there are vulnerable in the community that don’t have a place,” agreed Preston.
“It’s the first summer we’ve actually had a shelter for people to be at night.”
A reference to Inn Out of the Cold, now open year-round.
“It’s not out of capacity, we have a place for people to go.”
Again pointing to the signage dealing with loitering Preston noted, “I guess we could go and arrest them all and they would be back on the street in about 15 minutes.”
It’s a no-win cycle. Issue a $65 ticket to an individual who can’t pay it. It’s all for nought and those on both sides of the law know that.
“We don’t have a team on the street dealing with it. We have websites that deal with addictions but most of the people I’ve seen this morning didn’t go on the website to help work on their addiction.”
It all comes down to where do you move these individuals. Herding them further down Talbot Street just shifts the problem on to another group of merchants.
“We continue to work toward a more substantial, whole solution,” advised Preston.
“One of them is to make our shelter and day centre a hub with all of the agencies who can help us with this issue.
“The city’s responsibility really kind of ends with housing. Healthcare is a provincial issue.
“We don’t have a team on the street dealing with it. We have websites that deal with addictions but most of the people I’ve seen this morning didn’t go on the website to help work on their addiction.
“I’m not trying to be flippant about it.”
Well, there are some in attendance who would argue flippancy is part of the problem.
At the end of an hour, Preston assured all those present and merchants unable to attend that they will receive an email next week suggesting the next steps and when a follow-up meeting will be held.
“I promise you will hear from me by the first of the week. I look for your help to help me convince the Canadian Mental Health Association, Addictions and Mental Health Ontario and the hospital that we have a nucleus of 40 or 50 people on the streets who have serious mental health and addictions problems and without all of us working together on it, it’s not going to get solved.
“We need to help solve the problems of the people causing the problems.”
HOLD OFF ON THE SKATES AND WALKING SHOES
Don’t let the sight of ice in the twin pads at the Joe Thornton Community Centre lull you into thinking a public skate or walk around the track is awaiting.
As outlined to council at Monday’s meeting, either one of those pastimes is still a good six weeks distant.
That’s according to a verbal update from Ross Tucker, director of parks, recreation and property management.
“In mid-November, we’ll be introducing public skating,” advised Tucker.
That includes adult skating and moms and tots.
“It will be during the week and we talked about every other day. So, twice a week for each of those groups at this stage.”
Much the same story for use of the walking track, a popular outing for many seniors.
“The intent of the walking track is that we’ll book specific times during the day.
“It isn’t the intent for us at this time to introduce, other than during the week when we have no one on the ice, we’ll bring the walking track people in.”
Neither scenario is going to sit well with the user groups who have patiently waited to get out and make use of the facility with their kids and social acquaintances.
LONG-TERM CARE SOLUTIONS AT HAND
Friday afternoon at the main pavilion in Pinafore Park a number of concerned care partners met with MPP Jeff Yurek to discuss necessary changes needed to long-term care facilities.
In particular, the need to stop warehousing our elderly for profit.
Linda Evely acted as a moderator with approximately 10 in attendance.
What lifted the undertaking beyond the typical complaint session is the group offered Yurek a variety of proposed solutions.
“The administration needs to communicate details in writing outlining the steps being taken to ensure the well-being of the residents, which should also be given to the care partners so that everyone is on the same page.”
“There needs to be a way to incorporate safety measures for residents, staff and care partners to be able to work together for emotional, mental and physical well-being of the residents.
She added, care partners after they have followed all applicable COVID-19 precautions, should be allowed to visit and help with the care of their loved ones, be it physical, mental or emotional.
Something that caregivers have recently been allowed to do.
Evely continued, “A higher pay scale for PSW’s would be a good incentive to entice more applicants to register in courses for long-term care home workers.”
Another suggestion is “to allow staff full-time employment so they do not have to work two jobs to make ends meet or work at two different homes.”
Evely continued, “The administration needs to communicate details in writing outlining the steps being taken to ensure the well-being of the residents, which should also be given to the care partners so that everyone is on the same page.”
The last item on the group’s solution list is more social activities.
“This would help with mental and emotional well-being of residents.”
Evely noted during the height of the pandemic, activities were put on hold in some facilities resulting in limited social contact.
While the concerns raised were beyond Yurek’s purview he did offer, “I know there are some upcoming announcements on some of these issues.”
An excellent dialogue and with many healthcare officials indicating the second wave of the coronavirus is upon us, the last thing caregivers want to see is a repeat of the deadly debacle in long-term care facilities witnessed this past spring.
Yurek did note, “We now have experience through what happened in the first wave . . . which can be applied.”
THE READER’S WRITE
In response to last week’s item on police body cameras, Judy MacDonald forwarded the following observation, which segues nicely with the downtown merchant item above.
“Reading about the futile job our St. Thomas police have to endure with the homeless and the drug addicts, it seems their only option is to catch and release.
“Until our judicial system becomes more efficient, there isn’t much hope. Talbot St. stores are suffering, the public avoids shopping unless they can find a parking place right near the store.
“How many of these addicts/homeless are St. Thomas natives? How many are from ‘away’ and the word is out that St. Thomas is ‘easy pickings’?
“I find it hard to believe that so many were raised here in our town.”
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