Homelessness is a complex problem. With so many needs, and so many stakeholders, an optimal solution is difficult to find. But for Jack Gray, solutions are imperative.
Gray lives in the neighbourhood around the Family Centre. Each morning, he and others in his neighbourhood face the grim realities of homelessness and drugs. Used needles and human feces are now common discoveries in his yard.
"I'm retired. I've got grandkids,” Gray said. “As a matter of fact, my youngest grandson got stuck by a dirty needle when he was five years old. He had to get shots for three months. They found the guy that threw the needle away. A police officer went above and beyond. His DNA was on record. [The case] went to court and the judge dismissed it.”
Two weeks ago, Mayor June Caul called a private meeting to listen to residents' complaints and talk about solutions to mitigate harms until the homelessness committee - which she and Councillor Andrew Hallikas sit on – implements a more durable solution.
The meeting also included OPP, the United Native Friendship Centre, members of the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board and the homelessness committee.
Caul said residents on 4th St. West have been very vocal and very concerned about their safety their children's safety and the fact that they are finding needles, human feces and indications that people have been on their steps or in their yards at night.
These problems arose when the Volunteer Bureau allowed people to set up tents because of the Family Centre and its goal of feeding the homeless, Caul said. However, she said neither herself nor the residents have a problem with homeless people.
“We understand how difficult it is,” Caul said. “We all want to be part of helping the homeless as much as we can. However, during the past month, there's been a huge increase of paraphernalia and indications of people who have been on drugs, wandering through the streets and in yards.”
As a result of that meeting, OPP in Fort Frances added two special patrols. One will be around the Family Centre and the other will be around Point Park.
OPP Sgt. Ann McEwen said part of the focus patrol is looking for things that are suspicious in nature.
“We make contact with people that are in the area just to be aware of what is going on and talk to residents about any concerns,” McEwen said. “We do foot patrols and vehicle patrols. We can be in the area. We can create visibility of the police, which in itself can be a deterrent, but it can also enhance safety."
However, Caul said residents do not feel that their requests are being met.
“They really want the place gone and the Centre gone from that area. They feel that would make their properties and lives a lot safer. They still have a great amount of concern,” Caul said. However, because the tents are on private property, Caul added, the town cannot take them down.
“We know we are not the only ones anywhere in the country who have the issues, but we are trying to find a resolution where we are able to have them in a spot where they can feel comfortable. Not a tent, but an actual building to be able to feel safe and secure when it is night time and they are looking for a place to stay”
Monica Sus, founder of the Family Centre, said they offer homeless people food from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., but do not operate as a shelter.
“At no time have we ever been a shelter or did we ever have anything to do with homelessness. We are totally anti-drug people. We have a licensed dietician who comes and volunteers. We have someone from the health unit that volunteers,” Sus said.
“We give people a soup and a sandwich. That is what we do. The problem is there is no solution to the drug problem. If there was a solution to the drug problem, we would not have a drug problem in our society.”
Both Gray and Caul said they have sympathy for homeless people. Gray said Camie, his wife, makes homemade face masks and sells them at the Rainy Lake Square market. He said half of her proceeds go to the Bear Clan Patrol which is made of volunteers who pick up needles and safely dispose of them.
“I feel for the homeless people, don't get me wrong and drug addicts is very hard to stop,” Gray said. “But unless you have the right knowledge, right education, you're not doing anything except catering to their needs."
The Family Centre are doing a service by feeding the homeless, Caul said. But she said she believes that there needs to be proper mental health workers and counsellors available to help the people who are in need of help.
“When you have a facility and you are opening the doors to provide them with some assistance, I truly believe that assistance needs to come with mental health workers, with counselling,” Caul said. “We need those community partners so that there is help available on site. It is not giving them everything that they need.”
Sus said they cannot turn people away. With COVID still active, those with nowhere to go need a place to be, so they've given them space to pitch tents. “Our society provides no institution for them to live in. This has nothing to do with the neighbours. They have no place to go," she added.
On the flip side of the coin, Caul said although she appreciates the efforts of the Family Centre, to keep people in need fed, they are not in a position to provide them life skills to help them move forward.
“We need a place where we can teach them some life skills, help them to write a resume. Help them to try to find a job. This is the piece missing from the puzzle. These people are not out there because they want to be,” Caul said.
“They do not want to be living in a tent or out freezing in the cold in the winter. They want a better life and they want to make themselves better and they want to be productive in society, but they need the tools and the help from the community."
Should any resident see a needle or something that needs to get reported, McEwen said, they should call the police right away.
“It is really important that they contact us through the communication centre and formally report it so that we can find factual information and we can get people the resources they need such as medical resources, investigation patrols," McEwen added.