From The Mayor's Desk:
Public Space Challenges
Doug Lawrance - Mayor, Sioux Lookout
Recently several members of the public have asked me to comment on the seemingly increasing number of intoxicated people in the downtown area of Sioux Lookout. The inquiries have all been respectful and generally included questions about why this is happening and what can be done to improve things. Unavoidable encounters with people who are in an altered state of mind and whose behavior is unpredictable can be frightening for anyone, especially children and the elderly. Such encounters are happening not only on the streets, but in public buildings and public spaces in private buildings. As well as fear and uncertainty as to how or even whether to proceed, there is a loss of dignity for all concerned in many of these situations. A brief historical review can inform both the questions of why this is happening and what can be done to improve things.
Sioux Lookout is the ‘Hub of the North’. It has probably been the hub since the railway made Sioux Lookout a divisional point on the trans-continental line. In the middle decades of the 1900’s our role as the northern hub for both health care and education crystalized. In health care it was the establishment of the residential tuberculosis treatment centre which eventually became the Federal Zone Hospital. Similarly we became a centre for northern education initially through the operations of Pelican Falls Indian Residential School. At the same time commercial and other activities related to servicing northern First Nations and people grew. Starting in the 1970’s and continuing through the 1990’s northern airports and scheduled airline service between the northern First Nations and Sioux Lookout became a reality. In the late 1980’s passenger movements at the Sioux Lookout Airport were about 30,000 per year. In 2018 there were approximately 125,000 passenger movements at the Sioux Lookout Airport. While our role as Hub of the North has grown, the largest sectors remain health and education. But there is much more. As well as the many First Nation and public agencies, the Sioux Lookout private sector is thriving. That private sector includes aviation, retailers, wholesalers, professional services, hotels, restaurants and more. Our economy continues to gain from the diversity created by the railway, tourist outfitters, forest industry, and others. The community also benefits from direct investment by First Nations in businesses in Sioux Lookout including restaurants, hotels, airlines, catering, commercial space, and more. Seventy percent of the economic activity in Sioux Lookout is directly related to servicing First Nation communities and people. We have embraced our role as Hub of the North. It brings tremendous opportunities to our community. It also brings challenges.
Outmigration from northern First Nation communities to Sioux Lookout and beyond is a fact. Sioux Lookout has grown because of this. Most people move here for education, training, employment, health care, housing, or to keep family connections. Some who come are seeking refuge from overcrowded and substandard housing, from abusive domestic situations, from the despair of unemployment. It is a fact that many who are here suffer from mental health and addictions issues. The numbers of people coming to our community in this latter group has outpaced the available services and facilities. The OPP statistics related to intoxicated people are alarming and are mirrored by Emergency Department statistics. The Municipality has used these statistics to advocate for a detox centre, a fully resourced emergency shelter, addictions treatment centre, transitional and supportive housing. We have also been part of advocacy for alternative justice methodologies so that we can break the cycle we are in of arrest, charge, incarceration, release, and repeat. Stable housing is a big part of the solution and lack of it certainly feeds the challenges. In August 2019 twenty people moved in to the new Sioux Lookout supportive housing project. During the first four months after occupancy the total OPP calls for service for those people decreased by 60% from the four months prior to occupancy. Stable housing and access to supports makes a difference.
During winter months in Sioux Lookout the issue of homelessness is both evident and dangerous. Particularly for those who suffer from both homelessness and addictions. The local shelter is not adequately resourced to handle homelessness combined with intoxication issues on a 24/7 basis. The Emergency Department cannot accommodate this challenge, nor should it. Often we encounter people seeking refuge in the warm airlocks of businesses, public facilities, or restaurants. When these venues are not available, the OPP Detachment is the place of last resort. Estimates of death related to homelessness in the 2017 calendar year range from 10 to 17. The point in time homelessness count done in Sioux Lookout in May 2018 put the number of self-reported homeless people at 66. The actual number was estimated as 2 to 3 times the self-reported number.
The Municipality continues to advocate and work with partners to resolve these issues. A key partner for us is the Kenora District Services Board. Many other agencies are engaged, including: Nishnawbe-Gamik Friendship Centre, First Step Women’s Shelter, Out of the Cold, Northwestern Health Unit, Sioux Hudson Literacy, Tribal Councils, Nishnawbe Aski Nation, and others. The Sioux Lookout OPP Detachment has been remarkable in dealing with the results of homelessness, addictions, intoxication, and the associated issues. Because of the many gaps in services and facilities, the OPP are the agency of first and often last resort. They do this as best they can using the methodologies provided to them as a police service.
There are many agencies, groups, and individuals working to address the challenges we have in Sioux Lookout related to homelessness and addictions. It is my belief that most of us would not chose to stay in a cycle of homelessness and addictions if we were provided with another option. The Municipality will continue to advocate for measures that help break the cycle. Many others are also working towards that goal. As a Municipality we do not have the resources or mandate to do more than ‘first aid’. We need engagement from the Provincial Government to bring into play the facilities and resources that can make real changes. The result will benefit all community members – both those with homes and those suffering from homelessness.
We are working hard to bring a new fully resourced emergency shelter/community hub to downtown Sioux Lookout. It is hoped that this hub would be open 24/7 and have the resources to accept people whether intoxicated or not on a 24/7 basis. It would provide a warm daytime gathering place and overnight beds. It may include some transitional rooms. Services that may be located there could include nursing, counselling, community police office, and more. This type of facility and service could significantly reduce many of the encounters currently occurring in public spaces. Many agencies and services are working to resolve these challenging issues through different methods, including: Situation Table, Poverty Reduction Strategy, Friendship Centre programming, Literacy Centre programming, and many, many more.