Council backs emergency accommodation plan despite neighborhood opposition

Residents of a Chatham neighborhood, where a proposed new emergency shelter is to be located, are unhappy with the lack of notice or communication from the Municipality of Chatham-Kent about the project.

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Despite opposition from dozens of nearby residents, councilors still voted on Monday to move forward with a plan to establish a new emergency homeless shelter in the former public school building. from Victoria Park.

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Chatham-Kent will now enter into a lease agreement with a group of local investors to provide emergency shelter at 185 Murray Street in East Chatham. This agreement involves a nominal fee of $1 while the municipality would be responsible for paying for necessary renovations, insurance costs, utilities and maintenance until May 31, 2025.

While there was an attempt to postpone the vote – Chatham County Michael Bondy filed an unsuccessful motion asking that the report be returned to staff until public consultation is complete – city staff said an impending deadline would make this difficult.

April Rietdyk, chief executive of community social services, said staff had already “exhausted” all other options for an interim solution. She said officials at Travelodge, which currently provides emergency shelter, did not want to extend the municipality’s minimum, which expires at the end of May. There was also no ability to use other motels in town, Rietdyk noted.

The John D. Bradley Convention Center, the municipality’s shelter at the start of the pandemic, is also unavailable after being booked for a number of events this year, Rietdyk added. Without finding space in a shelter for the next two and a half months, homeless people in Chatham-Kent will have to be turned away, Rietdyk warned.

“They will be on the street,” she said. “We will see them in camps. We will see them on the benches because they have nowhere to go.

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The vote came after councilors heard more than 20 deputies, most of them in opposition. Many of those who spoke to councilors were unhappy with the lack of communication from the municipality.

Jeff Piché, acting as a spokesperson for the neighborhood, said he only heard about the plan to operate a shelter at the old school through a media report on Friday evening.

“We hardly had time to let this sink in or respond to it,” Piché said in an interview before the meeting.

Mohammed Khaja, another ward spokesman, said he was not comfortable with how the proposal reached council on the first Monday after March Break.

Claiming the “completely unethical” process was rushed with little community consultation, Khaja said the municipality “wanted to bring it in and dump it here (and) then we have to deal with it.”

Although Chatham Bondy has long touted the old school site as an ideal site for emergency shelter, he backed residents’ demand that the report be postponed.

“We are elected by the people to react to their concerns,” he said. “I think the responsive decision tonight is to allow these people to be heard. The people of the neighborhood and beyond.

“We did not listen to the inhabitants. Not because we didn’t want to, or they didn’t want to talk, there just wasn’t a forum for it, so I think it was a big dud.

Based on the many emails received before the meeting, Bondy suggested that not everyone in that neighborhood objected to the proposal. Some in the neighborhood just want answers on things like policing and opening hours, he said.

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Piche, however, said people in the neighborhood are “saying ‘no’ and there are legitimate reasons for that.”

He said he did not believe proper research had been done on the choice of location, adding that vulnerable people, including students, long-term residents and pre-school children, lived in this. district.

“It was reckless and quick planning,” Piché said. “These are by definition vulnerable people – the elderly and the young.”

Khaja said he did not feel safe about a shelter in the neighborhood since his children and others often played in the streets and on school grounds.

He said neighbors had already experienced some insecurity with burglaries and drug-related activity in the area.

If council approves the site as an emergency shelter, Piché said his next step would be to seek an injunction in provincial court.

Rietdyk, however, stressed there will be town hall meetings for residents and partners to help address concerns.

“We want to be good neighbours,” she said. “I agree with some deputations. It all happened pretty quickly, but that doesn’t mean the team didn’t do a lot of work.

Chatham-Kent Police Chief Gary Conn was also open to hearing from the community and pledged his support.

“There will probably never be a consensus for an ideal location,” he said. “It’s a given. That being said, I support the public consultation, (and) we will perform thorough and robust crime prevention through environmental design analysis, as well as target hardening.

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Some councilors who spoke before the council meeting acknowledged the difficulty of finding a place of accommodation that everyone agrees on.

Chatham County Marjorie Crew said the municipality would prefer everyone to be housed and safe, noting that a number of recent factors, including skyrocketing housing costs and the COVID-19 pandemic, have significantly increased homelessness in the region.

She said some have a mistaken belief that all homeless people are “a bad actor”.

“It’s not,” Crew said. “We have families who are in the shelter who are homeless.”

She said this great facility has the potential to do so much good in the community.

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Julio V. Miller