Peterborough city council votes 6-5 to keep overflow shelter open until March

Council heard from neighbourhood residents who raised safety and security concerns about Wolfe Street shelter

Peterborough city council listening to delegations, including residents objecting to the overflow shelter at 210 Wolfe Street in downtown Peterborough, during a council meeting on July 25, 2022. (kawarthaNOW screenshot)
Peterborough city council listening to delegations, including residents objecting to the overflow shelter at 210 Wolfe Street in downtown Peterborough, during a council meeting on July 25, 2022. (kawarthaNOW screenshot)

Peterborough city council voted on Monday night (July 24) to keep the city’s 24-hour overflow shelter open until March 31, 2023 at a cost of $267,000 — despite hearing from a number of neighbourhood residents who raised safety and security concerns related to the shelter at 210 Wolfe Street in downtown Peterborough.

Prior to the pandemic, the city funded an overnight-only overflow shelter service operated by Brock Mission out of Murray Street Baptist Church. During the pandemic, the city explored options for locations for a 24-hour overflow shelter and, in October 2020, approved moving the overflow shelter to the city-owned building at 210 Wolfe Street. The 32-bed service was supported using provincial pandemic relief funding.

With the provincial funding set to run out at the end of the year, city staff recommended in a report to general committee the city fund the service over the winter months, from January 1st until March 31, 2023, given the continued high demand for the service. Otherwise, the overflow shelter would be closed in October 2022.

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At the July 11th general committee meeting, councillor Dean Pappas moved that the report be received for information only — which would mean the overflow shelter would close in October — and members voted 6-5 in favour of Pappas’s motion, with Mayor Diane Therrien later stating she had mistakenly cast her vote in favour of the motion.

Prior to the item coming up for discussion at Monday night’s council meeting, councillors heard from several delegations both in support and opposed to the overflow shelter. Some area residents and business owners raised concerns about drug dealers and users around the shelter location, littering and garbage, people using the sidewalks as urinals, and safety and security concerns.

“Our neighbourhood has gone to the dogs,” said Susan Trotter. “This type of shelter does not belong in a family neighbourhood.”

“It’s simply in the wrong location,” said Mike Melnik, owner of Impact Communications on Dalhousie Street, who was also speaking on behalf of Peter Blodgett of Darling Insurance at Alymer and Dalhousie. “What a terrible place the shelter is located. It’s 30 seconds from The Beer Store, 60-second walk to the cannabis store; the LCBO is two minutes away.”

“It’s simply situated in a very dangerous spot to the residents of the shelter,” Melnik added, referring to shelter clients with addiction issues and also mentioning stabbings and shootings in the neighbourhood.

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Some of the delegations were in support of the overflow shelter, including Claire Belding, justice services case manager from the Elizabeth Fry Society of Peterborough.

“The City of Peterborough has one of the highest rental rates in all of Ontario compared with the lowest rental vacancy available in all of our province,” Belding said. “If the city makes this decision to not extend the overflow shelter’s funding, then they are further putting those who are already societally oppressed at a greater risk for further criminalization.”

Later in the evening, when the item came up for discussion, Councillor Keith Riel — who is chair of the city’s social services and housing committees — moved to restore the original motion to fund the overflow shelter.

“We had some interesting delegations tonight, and certainly all of us are mindful of anywhere we put a shelter, there’s going to be people that are unhappy,” Riel said. “Without passing this tonight, this overflow shelter will close in October.”

Riel said that the overflow shelter has a 90 per cent occupancy rate, and that closing it would reduce the number of shelter beds in Peterborough from 99 to 74.

Choosing to close the shelter, Riel said, would result in “a steady diet of marginally and the homeless pushing carts, living in stairwells, sleeping outside, tenting, and god forbid that we lose somebody to the elements.”

In response to the concerns raised by residents, Riel committed to hold meetings with city staff to “find sort of solution to the problem.”

“I don’t think if I lived in that area I would like some of the things that are going on, and I think we just have to do a better job,” he noted. “Having said that, I cannot in good conscience allow this centre to close.”

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Councillor Kemi Akapo spoke in favour of Riel’s motion.

“Closing the shelter now will not result in the problem going away,” she said. “In fact, it will just I think make it more evident. It’s not going to magically solve the problem.”

“I live near that location so I see what the residents are talking about,” Akapo added. “Pretty much there’s no day that goes by that I’m not either woken up or hear arguments or yelling that happens in the street, so I’m well aware of what goes on there. If we had another location, certainly I think we would consider moving it there, but we picked the Wolfe Street location for a number of reasons. One, it is city owned so we are able to operate it and to make changes to it. We did put out calls for other people to open up locations and nobody stepped up to the plate, so we had to use the resources that we had.”

Councillors Kim Zippel and Stephen Wright also spoke in favour of Riel’s motion.

“Closing this shelter on the cusp of winter is unacceptable,” Zippel said. “There is no doubt there are challenges, but as our commissioner of community services has explained, the intent of this critical extension is to allow time for the new council to come up to speed, better understand the need for an overflow shelter, to give time for staff to present various options — in terms of hours of operation, location, type of operation, various funding models — for council to consider in the 2023 budget or as a separate report.”

“I believe this is a problem that, with good community consultation (and) solid focus, we can find some workable solution to addressing not only the concerns of the residents in that community, but also finding solutions for the unhoused population in our city,” Wright said.

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Councillor Henry Clarke spoke against Riel’s motion.

“I am not willing to extend funding for this shelter,” Clarke said. “I’m willing to spend the money, but not at the shelter. The thing is, shelters in many ways represent a failure. We’ve not been able to house the people or take care of them. Part of the reason is because we’re spending so much on the shelters that we’ve not got a lot left, without cutting a lot of other things, to move ahead with true solutions. Getting a person a safe, decent affordable home allows them to deal with so many of the issues, whether that’s alcoholism, addiction, employment, lack of schooling.”

“I would far rather that we close the Wolfe Street location, that would certainly help that neighbourhood, ensure that we are making maximum use of our other properties, and really give our staff additional resources to be able to get those people who are going to be displaced, housed,” he added. “That’s what I would far prefer to see, and that’s why I can’t support extending the funding.”

“I’ll tell you another thing: we start funding this, when it’s really a provincial thing that they’re just going to download on us by washing their hands and walking away, we’ll be on the hook for this forever and we’ll have to keep paying and paying. And again, we won’t have the resources to get a permanent solution and really make a difference for people.”

Councillor Dean Pappas reiterated his earlier position against funding the shelter.

“We punch way over our weight on shelters,” Pappas said, referring to larger urban centres that have a similar number of shelter beds as Peterborough. “It’s not a lack of caring by our community. It is not wanting to institutional poverty or enable addition. (There have been) 302 ambulance calls to this site. Roughly 20 ODs due to opioids, 13 ODs due to other drugs and alcohol, 36 acts of violence that required medical attention — all in the first six months — to the clients.”

“And that’s not even the impact on the residents. I too would spend the money on housing people. I would like to see transitional housing go into Wolfe Street, I would like to see detox into Wolfe Street — even affordable housing go into Wolfe Street in the parking lot, which is a real solution.”

Councillor Lesley Parnell also spoke against Riel’s motion.

“A temporary overflow shelter is not sustainable, and it’s not good for either the residents who live in homes near it or people who need this accommodation — there are other shelters they can go to,” she said, before referring to another option to increase housing in the city.

“The official plan that we have in place right now does allow for a secondary suite in most areas of the city,” Parnell said. “If you’re in a position where you can add a secondary suite, whether it be inside your house or if you want put a tiny home in your own backyard, then you just need to get a building permit and do it. You do not need a rezoning, so it’s really streamlined like that. And if the province does approve our new official plan, then you can have up to two auxiliary units within your property. You could have something in your basement, you can have an auxiliary unit outside.”

“If you really love tiny homes, then maybe put one in your own backyard. Those are options that available to our residents, and that does help create additional housing — hopefully affordable housing — within our existing infrastructure.”

Before putting Riel’s motion to a vote, Mayor Diane Therrien spoke in favour of the motion.

“I appreciate the concerns of the residents in the area, and I understand that this site was intended to be temporary,” she said. “The housing crisis and the addictions crisis, as we know, has been exacerbated by COVID. We forget about this a lot: there have been a lot of people who have been able to get successfully housed through the shelter system and there’s a lot of great work that has been done on that, but the number of people requiring services continues to increase and this is happening across Ontario.”

“This is going to get worse when our provincial government removes the rent cap next year and with the ongoing freeze of social assistance rates. The overflow shelter is by no means perfect. It’s not a long-term solution. We do need housing; we’re working on that — the city is working on affordable housing and all these other fronts where we’re able. And again, we need money from senior levels of government to push those forward. But tonight I will not be supporting closing the overflow shelter.”

Riel’s motion passed 6-5, with Therrien and councillors Riel, Akapo, Wright, Zippel, and Gary Baldwin voting in favour and councillors Clarke, Pappas, Parnell, Andrew Beamer, and Don Vassiliadis voting against it.