It was a critical talking point throughout this year’s municipal election campaign.
But homelessness and, in particular, its impact on the downtown core has been a front-burner issue now for several years.
To kick off the city council meeting this past Monday (Nov. 7) Danielle Neilson, the city’s Homelessness Prevention and Housing Programs Coordinator initiated a deep dive into the lives of homeless individuals in St. Thomas and Elgin.
Her presentation and subsequent Q & A consumed a good 30 minutes.
She kicked off her information session with a reminder, “I would like to start by acknowledging that the complexity, humanity and tragedy of the impact of homelessness on people’s lives in St. Thomas are no different from what people are experiencing across all of Canada today.”
She continued, “Experiences of homelessness today are the result of deep, historic, system-level errors that have accumulated over decades.
“Such as colonialism and divestments in affordable housing. These combined with other social inequities such as deep poverty, unresolved inter-generational trauma, an inflated and unaffordable housing market, the current cost of living crisis, the impacts of the pandemic – and these are just to name a few – have cumulatively increased housing instability, including occurrences of homelessness at a higher rate than we have ever seen historically before.
She stresses you have to go for it. Even if that means initiating your charge four years ahead of schedule.
Tara McCaulley had hoped to enter municipal politics in 2026, but now she is seeking a seat on city council in the Oct. 24 municipal vote.
McCaulley feels her experience gained over the past 10 years with the Small Business Enterprise Centre and the St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation can be put to good use as the city deals with a variety of challenges.
That’s in addition to her experience dealing with all three levels of government.
“I feel this is a good time,” advises McCaulley. “There are lots of exciting things happening in our community and also some challenges.
She stresses the need for affordable housing is a critical priority along with the health of the downtown core and preparing for future growth.
It has been a significant week for housing news in St. Thomas.
A pair of announcements mid-week covered off a broad swath of the residential spectrum.
At Wednesday’s site plan control committee meeting, conditional approval was granted to Fast Forward Ventures of London for their 14-storey, 162-unit apartment building to rise on the south end of the former Timken Canada property near the intersection of First Avenue and Talbot Street.
The Timken plant closed in 2013 and was demolished and the site cleared in 2017.
The next day, the province announced $3 million in funding to develop 20 supportive housing units inside Phase 2 of the city’s social services and housing hub now under construction at 16 Queen Street.
Let’s take a closer look at both developments – which Mayor Joe Preston described as “one more step in attacking the city’s housing shortage.”
Thanks to a critical partnership forged at the beginning of the year, the affordable housing inventory in St. Thomas will increase by more than 100 units in the next four years.
Teaming up with Indwell, the city can develop local solutions to homelessness.
That was the observation of Indwell CEO Jeff Neven Wednesday afternoon at the official groundbreaking of Phase 2 of the social services and housing hub evolving in the city’s west end.
Initially, it was hoped this building fronting Queen Street would begin to take shape in 2019, however, the numbers presented a soft business case and the project had to be put on hold, forcing the relocation of a childcare centre that was to be housed on-site.
As announced Wednesday, the four-storey structure expected to open in the spring of 2023 will contain 45 one-bedroom apartments and eventually a third fire hall.
Elgin Mall has wonderful potential according to the small, family-owned real estate investment company that acquired the 263,000-square-foot property in October of 2016.
At the time the mall was operating at a roughly 50 per cent vacancy rate.
Jay Burstein, spokesman for the new owners stated, “Our goal is to try and lease the vacant space as quickly as possible and try to make this mall the vibrant place it once was.”
A rather major concern was the large vacant space at the west end of the mall, formerly occupied by Zellers.
“We recognize the fact the former Zellers space is something we really have to look at,” admitted Burstein. “If we could find one tenant for that space, that would be awesome.”
Just shy of five years later and what is now known as Elgin Centre is again making headlines.
Preparatory work has begun at the very same spot in the shopping centre to make way for a $16 million, 95-room Holiday Inn Express and Suites scheduled to officially open next October.
Last week in this corner we quoted from a letter Heather Stillitano, chair of the Elgin Community Drug & Alcohol Strategy, directed toward Mayor Joe Preston and members of council. She stressed, “the ‘War on Drugs’ has not been effective at the individual, community or societal level throughout history and it fails to address the connection between mental health and opioid use.” She went on to note, the opioid overdose crisis does not exist independently from other public health issues. “For example,” Stillitano advised, “infectious diseases and other mental health concerns are highly associated with drug use.” At the council meeting, Monday (Aug. 9) members spent several moments debating the implications of her correspondence. Coun. Lori Baldwin-Sands opened the discussion by acknowledging “I am fully supporting moving this motion forward.” The motion in question isfrom BC-based Moms Stop The Harm urging council to endorse their call for the federal government to declare the overdose crisis a national public health emergency and that the government “immediately seek input from the people most affected by this crisis and meet with provinces and territories to develop a comprehensive, pan-Canadian overdose action plan.”
Proposed residential development on land currently owned by the Elgin County Railway Museum is an opportunity to revitalize that portion of downtown St. Thomas, stresses developer Doug Tarry. He is proposing to purchase eight acres of railway land immediately west of the museum at $300,000 per acre for a low-rise residential development that would front onto a new street to be built off Ross Street and north of Jonas Street. We talked with Tarry on Tuesday of this week (Aug. 3) and he stressed nothing is carved in stone at this point as museum members have yet to approve the sale of the property. He started by noting the museum is a gem and, “There is such an opportunity to incorporate how that building works and what it is being used for and how we can expand that into a real revitalization of the centre of downtown.” As to what the housing would look like Tarry advised, “We’re talking apartment units and we don’t have a design done yet because we obviously haven’t bought the property yet. “But we’re also wanting to bring our expertise to the table to help with the museum revitalization.”
As expected, city council on Monday (Aug. 10) unanimously approved a municipal bylaw which supports the letter of instruction issued at the end of last month by Southwestern Public Health requiring the use of face coverings by individuals inside buildings where there is access to the public. The bylaw will be in effect until Jan. 15 of next year at which time the need to extend it will be evaluated But, is it little more than window dressing? City manager Wendell Graves says the intent now is to train enforcement staff to ensure they understand how the bylaw is to be applied. Read into that it is unlikely to ever be enforced. Instead, it will be servers, cashiers and front-line staff who will face the wrath of belligerent customers who stubbornly refuse to wear a mask because it is their right to do so.
So, what do you do with a vacant downtown church that is described as “an exemplary building representing the economic, cultural and architectural values of the City of St. Thomas?” And, how does the city protect this architectural gem now that it is on the selling block? City council on Monday (July 13) is being asked to to allow administration to begin the notice of intent process to declaring the vacant Trinity Anglican Church at 55 Southwick Street a heritage property under the Ontario Heritage Act. The current owner (the Anglican Diocese) is not considering designation at this time, and why would they? That move would certainly impact the sale of the property. The church was officially opened on May 27, 1877, built to replace Old St. Thomas Pioneer Church on Walnut Street.