I acknowledge the many needs of the vulnerable populations in our community and the efforts to provide for those, who for whatever reason, have found themselves struggling in life and/or homeless. Their stories are very complex ones with no simple solutions. The temporary Cold Weather Drop-In Centre on Front Street, open from January 17th to the end of April this year, is one example of efforts to provide for people in need. My concerns and objections to this service are with the decision to return to 66 Front Street, having completely ignored the many concerns expressed in ‘Letters to the Editor’ Feb. 12 and Mar. 3, 2020, by myself and Nancy Roy, respectively. The downtown community has re-lived a very negative public experience again in 2022, because of the return to the same location.
The business community has a history of leadership and generosity to services and programs as well as being compassionate in their interactions with the most vulnerable when they present as customers.
We are in the business of commerce. We invest, work hard to attract and retain regular customers, and try to provide a pleasant and safe workplace for our staff and the patrons. It is discouraging for all, to try to deal with increased loitering, littering, entrance obstruction, increased police and ambulance presence, and safety issues. We often find ourselves contacting health services and peace officers when medical and safety issues present in the downtown. At times, great discomfort and anxiety for customers and staff is caused by abusive and aggressive behaviour; employees of the stores are left to deal with challenging behaviours on their own. There is a measurable financial cost for our community.
Many customers will opt out and choose not to engage in their regular purchasing routines, many citizens remain silent and politically correct about these issues because of working in the health and social services industry. Others have grown indifferent to the state of our downtown, some avoiding the experience altogether and shopping out of town. Once again, after much thought, I have chosen to speak out about our downtown issues.
In Feb. 2020, I attended the Cold Weather Drop-In Centre Ad Hoc committee meeting at the Train Station at Mayor Lawrance’s invitation. I was hopeful that my letter to the editor had initiated some reflection and conversation. There was no agenda indicating a time to discuss my concerns. Instead, I heard only reports of the benefits of the Drop-In Centre. Although many organizations are represented on this committee, many voices haven’t been heard. The seniors matter, the businesses matter, customers matter and families and youth matter. We were all left out of the discussions, and the repercussions for the downtown were not considered. Omitting the business community and the seniors is leaving out the exact parties directly affected by this decision.
The Mayor stated in the March 13, 2020 Bulletin, “we’re hoping for a full-time, fully resourced shelter by October 2020.” I was hopeful to hear of this alternative location, but in 2022 nothing changed.
Modern communities valuing tourism and economic development are striving to create thriving ‘Walking Downtowns’. These same communities are engaging all stakeholders to address social issues without sacrificing their downtown district, a district where commerce can thrive, consumers, families, youth, seniors and tourists can walk and access services and activities in a friendly and safe environment. An important part of their planning involves creating Integrated Community Care Hubs to accommodate the multifaceted needs of the vulnerable people it serves.
Over the past few years our Municipality has advocated for programs and services to address the crisis of mental health, addictions and homelessness on the streets of Sioux Lookout with the Federal, Provincial and First Nations governments. At a time when there is such focus on implementing services, we must be aware that knee-jerk decisions like the location of the Drop-In Center can cause negative and long-term damage on existing economic aspects in our town. We need more strategic planning, mapping out long term remedies to address community challenges rather than approaching issues with reactive and temporary decisions in order to access temporary funding.
An Integrated Community Care Hub is needed in our community, and we witness this ever-growing need in the downtown core daily. I would argue that a full-time, fully resourced shelter as mentioned by the Mayor needs to be a destination away from the downtown district, in an area such as the old high school or the old Zone Hospital properties. I don’t believe that its use would be compromised by location, as most areas in Sioux Lookout are within walking distance of our downtown. A campus style development plan would allow the addition over time of a multitude of services necessary to provide for people suffering from mental health, addictions and homelessness issues.
Empty buildings such as the old Mayfair Theatre, the Northern Store, the old IGA need to be looked at for business and office development rather than being considered for these centers. How do we ever hope to attract and retain business in our downtown if it is sacrificed and we don’t give it some attention or make decisions that promote its development. I think of the many possible community activity uses for Centennial Park, (Music Festival, Farmers Markets, Art in the Park, Youth Activities, Blueberry Festival events, etc.) At one time the Farmers Market thrived being located on one block of Front Street and in the Train Station parking lot. Why not reopen the Sioux Lookout Museum in the Heritage Train Station?
The multitude of services provided by an Integrated Community Care Centre in Sioux Lookout would address the ever-expanding needs of our vulnerable population and others in the community. What is needed here is a coming together of all levels of government, the Northern Community leaders, and the community stakeholders to collaborate as they did with the Four Party Agreement that built our beautiful hospital; this time the focus should be on a very much needed Integrated Community Care Facility.
Such a facility needs NOT to be located in the downtown business core of Sioux Lookout.