Love where you shop.
That’s the branding employed by the St. Thomas Downtown Development Board as they promote shopping in the city’s historic core area along Talbot Street.
Although in this exceptional year, the downtown merchants have faced a double whammy: shuttering for several months due to the coronavirus and having to contend with the homeless who wander Talbot Street and frequent the back lanes.
Although they are now open again, for the most part, many shoppers are leery to venture downtown citing the less than inviting atmosphere.
That led to a meeting late last month with a group of merchants and Mayor Joe Preston.
We documented that one-hour, face-to-face exchange held in a back lane behind the former social services hub in the Mickleborough Building.
At the conclusion, Preston assured the merchants “at the first of the week you’ll receive an email from the mayor suggesting what the next steps are and when the next meeting might be with suggestions of time and place.
“That’s what I promise, you will hear from me by the first of the week (this past week) as to what the next steps are.”
Well, his email release comes up short on several fronts.
It is nothing more of a recap of steps taken this year on the homeless front.
For example, the Inn Out of the Cold is now a year-round facility and Preston notes, “It is the spot where navigation occurs toward permanent housing and other services like addiction and mental health assistance is available. Permanent housing successes have occurred.”
Then there is a reference to the daytime drop-in centre at the Mickleborough Building.
The DDB has done its part with The Green Team to pick up litter and sharps pickup courtesy of Your Neighbourhood Needle Network.
But the merchants are looking for greater substance than a documentation of what has been done. They are looking for solutions to the immediate problems at hand which are loitering, the discarding of drug paraphernalia and people relieving themselves in back doorways.
None of which is conducive to Love Where You Shop.
“As the progress I mentioned above moves to next steps with decisions made, I will communicate with you to get your thoughts and next steps.”
Preston concludes his slim treatise with, “We all recognize a co-operative effort of addiction and mental health support is needed.
“All groups that are part of that area of healthcare delivery met last week to start the delivery of these services at a community level.
“More will be communicated about this soon. The city will be part of these efforts, however, there are many other capable organizations involved also.
Minister (Jeff) Yurek was also part of these discussions to bring a provincial perspective and support.”
A lot of generalities with little substance to assure beleaguered merchants better days are ahead.
As was the case with the initial meeting with downtown businesses, Preston emphasizes in his email the need for them to provide input “about causes and some potential solutions.”
At this point, I’m sure the majority of them can offer this bit of input, “We’re rather preoccupied attempting to make a living.”
They’re not social workers, they’re not mental health advocates and they certainly are not policing or judicial experts.
They are shop owners plugging away at trying to keep the wolves away from the front door and the homeless from the back entry.
Mayor Joe wraps up with, “As the progress I mentioned above moves to next steps with decisions made, I will communicate with you to get your thoughts and next steps.”
Seems all of the merchants were of the expectation that would be the gist of this email.
Not a mention of time or place of the next meeting, as promised.
Promise made, merchants await.
OFFERING HELP BECAUSE THEY ARE OUTSPOKEN
At the above-mentioned meeting, the mayor observed, “What we don’t have is a street effort. We don’t have a team on the street dealing with it.”
Well, there is a team of volunteers out on the street every night doing their bit to help.
Known as The Nameless, they are a community-based, peer-led harm- reduction group offering proactive boots on the ground, as noted in an interview with Leticia Mizon in July of 2019.
They get no acknowledgement from the city, no doubt due to philosophical differences.
At that time, they were operating on a monthly budget of $400.
We caught up with Mizon last Saturday (Sept. 26) and she noted the volunteers have been engaged in outreach for almost two years.
Efforts, Mizon feels, “that are being completely dismissed by the city,” even though Preston is fully aware of what The Nameless do.
What we have here is a case of “misalignment of values.”
Despite the fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been operating seven days a week in the downtown core where they set up a table with supplies and information.
They are constantly asked to shift locations because of “optics.”
For a time they hunkered down in the former White Street parkette.
The optics in this case are the people the group assists.
“People aren’t willing to support us to support them,” advises Mizon.
She suggests it’s a prime example of NIMBYism.
“A lot of misunderstanding and judgement being placed on the people we serve.
“We work with the people we do serve to make sure these things aren’t happening. The more conversations we have, the better.”
“There is stigma and judgement attached to the people that we do serve. You’re going to bring around dirty needles, you’re going to bring around people who loiter.
“They’re going to urinate in our back doors and sleep in the places you carve out for them.”
Mizon continues, “Which isn’t true. Some people might have issues with public urination and loitering, but they don’t have a home.”
Yes, we are dealing with the homeless here, often compounded by mental health issues.
The concerns presented are valid, says Mizon.
“We work with the people we do serve to make sure these things aren’t happening. The more conversations we have, the better.”
When they are set up for the evening, they are offering disposal bins for sharps, naloxone, sterile supplies, food, clothing, personal care items, referral to services, peer-to-peer support, encouragement, value and worth.
“And a physical spot in the community where they can be and permissed to be.”
“And, it’s hard to be patient and kind and dance a very political dance when you are every day seeing trauma, devastation and harm which can be resolved at a political level.”
Through financial contributions, Mizon estimates they had $10,000 available for operating in their last fiscal year.
“It’s due to the generosity of the people who see the work that we do, see value in the work we do and see value in the people we serve.”
Apart from donations, the group gets no concrete funding.
They do run fundraisers and online auctions plus the sale of T-shirts helps the cause.
They now are incorporated and The Nameless is seeking charity status, which will allow them to apply for funding.
“But we’ve done the best we can and we’ve operated seven days a week, 365 days a year on $10,000 and it’s deeply impacted the lives of the people we serve.
“It’s incredible, we have grown very rapidly thanks to the contributions of the community.”
On average, notes Mizon, they serve 20 to 25 individuals a night.
“From all walks of life. They’re not just people experiencing homelessness.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been able to shine a light on people who are in four walls, which means they are housed, but they are still in need.
“We have reached out to a lot of partners and the community and I think because we are very left-leaning in politics and don’t do a lot of things by the book, we have an image that is hard to align with.”
So, there’s that political thing.
“Collectively, community has power and we can do these things without waiting for approval or red tape to be removed or walls to be scaled.”
“Which makes sense and we understand that,” stresses Mizon. “And we accept that. And we’re doing the best that we can to move forward from those barriers that we possibly have created ourselves because we are so outspoken.
“But, it needs to be reminded that we are in the trenches every day. We are seeing the devastation and trauma and death. And, it’s hard to be patient and kind and dance a very political dance when you are every day seeing trauma, devastation and harm which can be resolved at a political level.”
Mizon reminds, “Collectively, community has power and we can do these things without waiting for approval or red tape to be removed or walls to be scaled.
“The community is very talented, giving and supportive and we are leaning on those talents of our community members who volunteer with us seven days a week.”
They number anywhere from 15 to 20 diehards.
“We may be small, but we are powerful. And, we can do the things set forth with compassion, empathy and understanding. And, we have done that consistently for almost two years.”
Compassion and empathy because the volunteers have travelled that road.
“We’re able to sit with folks at an equal level on a curbside and have a conversation about ‘we’ve been there, I know what you’re going through.'”
While the group has not proactively reached out to downtown business owners, some merchants have contacted The Nameless via their Facebook page.
Building relationships through conversation, notes Mizon.
They’ve got a credible track record out on the street.
And, as Mizon sadly documents, “Our friends are dying. The people we love are dying. They’re sick and there is so much that can be done.”
The ultimate bottom line.
“The fact it is being wildly and very publically ignored is so hurtful. Beyond words,” struggles Mizon.
If you wish to find out more, visit their Facebook page or https://thenamelessoutreach.weebly.com/
“We are over-transparent at times,” stresses Mizon, “because we want to be in the trust of the people who donate to us.
“We want to be able to show them where their money is going . . . to create community awareness. To empower community members to act, to do, to learn and to love each other.”
Sorely needed in the critically divided environment we now inhabit.
PROTECTING VULNERABLE PERSONS
We haven’t devoted any space to Charlie Duke of late.
Doesn’t ring a bell?
Perhaps you know him better as Vishal Chityal, the award-winning operator of Walnut Manor in St. Thomas.
The same individual who – according to him – devotes copious amounts of resources to ensure the inhabitants of said Walnut Manor live in a clean, comfortable, home-like setting with plenty of nourishing food to sustain them through the day.
Well, Chityal was the subject of an exchange Wednesday (Sept. 30) in the Ontario Legislature concerning another of his top-notch facilities, Lakeside Terrace in Port Colborne.
As an aside, his abodes all sport mom-and-apple-pie monikers that are oh so comforting.
There’s a back story to Lakeside Terrace which we’ll delve into in the coming weeks.
In any event Jeff Burch, NDP MPP for Niagara Centre, last December introduced a private member’s bill to regulate supportive living homes like the pair noted above.
The Protecting Vulnerable Persons in Supportive Living Accommodation Bill provides a framework for operators and sets minimum standards that must be met so that tenants are no longer at risk.
So this week, MPP Burch posed the following question to Jeremy Roberts, Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services.
“Why is this government allowing Ontario citizens . . . to live in unregulated, substandard conditions?”
Here is Mr. Roberts’ answer, word for word.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker, and thank you to the member
opposite for this important question. This is an issue that I take personally as well as an important issue because my brother lives in a congregate care setting.
“I know that our government is committed to ensuring that those in our congregate care settings are provided the protection and services they need. Our government took immediate action to protect our province’s most vulnerable and the front-line staff who care for them in residential settings.
“Through the COVID-19 Action Plan for Vulnerable People, we implemented measures that will help to stop COVID-19 at the door of these facilities through measures like enhanced screening and use of PPE and manage outbreaks when they do happen, which included enhanced testing and contact tracing.
“This plan builds on our previous investments, including up
to $40 million to support organizations that provide residential services like our developmental services agencies.
I look forward to providing more information in the supplementary.”
“Owners have free rein to take advantage of vulnerable seniors who have no other options and frequently no one to advocate for them. We have seen fires, injuries and several deaths as a result of no regulation.”
Well then, let’s move on to the supplemental question from MPP Burch.
“The real problem is that these homes are unregulated. That’s the issue. I proposed a private member’s bill, Bill 164, that will protect residents from these abusive conditions.
“Members of the Premier’s own cabinet supported this bill in 2017, including the Solicitor General.
“Many people who have complex needs, but who don’t qualify for and can’t get into long-term care, end up in these supportive living homes that claim to offer housing with supportive services and amenities typically provided in full-service retirement care.
“Owners have free rein to take advantage of vulnerable seniors who have no other options and frequently no one to advocate for them. We have seen fires, injuries and several deaths as a result of no regulation.
Will the Premier commit to regulating these homes and ask his members to pass my Bill 164, Protecting Vulnerable Persons in Supportive Living?”
Again, word for word, here is Mr. Roberts’ response to the supplemental question.
“Thank you for the supplementary question and for the member opposite’s interest in this important file.
“The COVID-19 Residential Relief Fund that our government introduced covered eligible costs such as additional staffing, residential respite for caregivers, and personal protective equipment and supplies.
“We have also as a government made several very important emergency orders, including providing flexibility so staffing and resources can be redirected to essential tasks, requiring that staff work for a single employer within that sector, and limiting staff to working at a single site in an outbreak to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“As the situation continues to evolve, our government remains committed to protecting our most vulnerable citizens. I thank the member opposite for that question.”
That response, dear readers, is a classic example of obfuscation. The action of making something obscure, unclear or unintelligible.
This corner has documented the miserable conditions in homes like Walnut Manor since 2014, long before the arrival of COVID-19.
Let’s not attempt to mix-master the coronavirus and the safety of residents into the plight of the poor souls warehoused in these facilities all those years.
Our thanks to Mike Haines, constituency assistant to MPP Burch for keeping this on the front burner.
To the couple who parked on Talbot Street on the weekend and walked over to talk to me about the homeless situation downtown. It followed on the heels of the meeting a few days prior between Mayor Joe Preston and a group of core merchants.
They expressed valid concerns about the state of the downtown and the number of homeless individuals – many plagued by mental health issues – who are attempting to co-exist with these merchants.
They also wondered about the lack of public washrooms downtown, is it any wonder they are using back alleys to relieve themselves.
Are eateries in the core expected to make their facilities available to these individuals?
One more consideration when the mayor and merchants put their heads together.
And that sets up an appropriate segue below, although I see many obstacles to clear before ever making this a reality.
THE READER’S WRITE
Susan Gerry touches on that with her comment posted this week.
“One solution to reduce and hopefully eliminate public urination is to provide porta-potties. I rarely walk too far away from home after taking my blood pressure meds.”
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And a reminder, I can be heard weekday afternoons as news anchor and reporter on 94.1 myFM in St. Thomas. As always, your comments and input are appreciated.