The Inn, the city’s emergency shelter which opened back in January, has a new executive director. Brian Elliot, who came on board last month, was employed in the same role previously with Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario. He replaces interim executive director Pastor Cherisse Swarath. In an interview with Elliot this week, we asked what is it about the emergency shelter and St. Thomas that attracted him to the position. “I’ve been involved with non-profits, one way or another, my entire life and so I really saw The Inn as a place in St. Thomas that had been very progressive in trying to find longer-term solutions to the homeless situation.” To minimize the number of homeless individuals in St. Thomas and Elgin, Elliot stresses the need to work with community partners. “Habitat was all about families and, in some cases, individuals and helping them succeed. And The Inn is no different. We’re working with individuals and we’re finding the right supports and the right solutions to allow them to be more successful in their lives. “I think there are a lot of similarities.”
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.
The first Elgin-Middlesex-London candidate forum for the June 2 provincial election was held this past Tuesday at the St. Thomas Public Library.
Hosted by the Elgin-St. Thomas Coalition to End Poverty, the two-hour session featured 10 questions from coalition members relating to poverty, homelessness, a living wage and mental health issues.
The three hopefuls present were PC candidate Rob Flack, Liberal candidate Heather Jackson and NDP candidate Andy Kroeker.
Moderated by the myFM news team featuring Kennedy Freeman and myself, the event kicked off what will be a hectic 28-day runup to the election itself.
Not present for the forum but who have now declared their candidacy are Matt Millar from the New Blue Party of Ontario, Brigitte Belton of the Ontario Party and Amanda Stark of the Green Party of Ontario.
Wary of having the June provincial election get in the way of his political aspirations later in the year, St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston became the first candidate to put forth their name for the municipal vote in October.
On Wednesday (April 6), Preston confirmed his intention to seek re-election as the head of council.
“It’s an election year,” noted Preston in a conversation shortly after announcing his candidacy, “but with a lot of other stuff going on with the provincial election and a federal leadership in one of the major parties.
“And I just thought, before all that gets too crowded, I’m going to let people know so I can go about the job of mayor and continue doing it until we get into campaigning sometime late summer or early September for an October election.”
He admits he has been peppered with the question, ‘Are you running?’
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.”
It all started with a high school geography course so many years ago.
As city manager Wendell Graves reflected back on his years of public service on Feb. 25, his final day at city hall, his attention turned to a particular field trip that would be “the ignition point” for what would become a four-decade career path.
“Don Cann was the teacher and he brought us on an afternoon field trip to city hall and specifically to the planning department. And that was my initial ignition point. I had never been in city hall before.
“My roots are in the city. I graduated eons ago from Locke’s Public School and then Arthur Voaden and the influence those institutions had on my career path has been tremendous.
“I give a shout out to all those kids who sit behind those desks or in front of a screen. There is so much opportunity here in the city for them to grow their careers and that is really important.
“And a fulfilling career as well.”
There is no approved site on which to begin construction. The wish list of options is rather lengthy. And, as for the cost, we’ll let Mayor Joe Preston opine on that rather important consideration.
Of course, we’re talking about a possible community and aquatic centre now being studied by a technical committee struck to “create a physical concept plan and determine the location for a new community and aquatic centre in order to be prepared for future funding opportunities.
A report from the committee was presented to city council at its final meeting of the year on Dec. 20.
Members unanimously approved moving forward with the next exploratory stage which includes reviewing financial partnerships with surrounding county municipalities, reviewing potential operating partnership opportunities and retaining a consultant to determine a Class C cost estimate for such a facility.
City manager Wendell Graves ball-parked consulting fees at $10-$15,000.
He’s lived in the downtown core for 29 years and Steve Peters recounts over that time, “either sitting in my front window and watching the traffic on the street or sitting on my deck and hearing the traffic, things have changed.”
Boy, have they ever and Coun. Peters begins to open up on the challenges people face in finding a place to live in the heart of St. Thomas.
How much of that is due to what is referred to as the gentrification of downtown neighbourhoods?
“In the core area, the number of retrofits I have seen and continue to see,” suggested Peters.
“I am aware of a family that has had to move out of their place because the building has been sold and the new owner is coming in and is going to spend a lot of money to upgrade the place.
“I can look at a house beside me that is a fourplex and changed hands about four years ago and the new owner I bet spent over $200,000 or more and where this fourplex was probably renting for $600 is now renting for $1,200 plus utilities.”
It’s been under the microscope for over a year and last month Thames Valley District School Board trustees continued with their collective finger on the pause button while dealing with the future of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. In October of last year, the program was paused pending a review “as a result of a board motion reflecting concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter that requested the administration to ‘engage in extensive consultation . . . regarding the School Resource Officer,'” according to a TVDSB release at the end of October. The release continues, “While the review found value in the program, it also confirmed that some students, including a disproportionate amount of Indigenous, Black and Youths of Colour have felt harmed or traumatized by the presence of police in Thames Valley Schools.” The SRO program has been in St. Thomas schools for a considerable length of time and Police Chief Chris Herridge stated recently, “We are very proud of our local school programs, the terrific work STPS officers have been doing in St. Thomas schools for decades and the positive relationships which have been developed . . . “ Is this the same program the TVDSB has paused for 13 months?