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Canada ‘Our voices will never be heard’: Shutdown of Northern Ontario shelter sparks backlash amid worsening drug crisis

When the homeless shelter and meal facility and Knox United Church in downtown Kenora, Ont., first opened in February, 2019, local officials hailed it as 'wonderful news' for the town.

Geoffrey York/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

In summer, the lakeside town of Kenora is an idyllic northern resort, filled with boaters and cottagers on their way to fishing vacations on Lake of the Woods. But away from the docks and the sailboats, the signs of crisis are mounting.

As homeless people trudge down the streets of this Northwestern Ontario town, the fences and doors are posted with “No Loitering” signs. Tonnes of crushed rocks have been dumped into public spaces to discourage drug users from congregating. And local officials have now ordered a temporary shutdown of a homeless shelter – provoking sharp criticism from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).

An escalating drug crisis, including the growing use of crystal meth, is devastating many Indigenous communities and other towns in Northwestern Ontario and Manitoba. It has led to a rise in homelessness in Kenora, whose residents and business owners are worried about crime and economic damage.

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But the shutdown of the 44-bed homeless shelter is “dangerous” and a threat to the health of its residents, according to a letter by Renu Mandhane, OHRC chief commissioner.

When the 45-day shutdown was announced last month, Kenora officials said it would allow them to arrange better safety and support at the shelter, including health services and security to prevent drug dealing inside the facility. The shutdown was scheduled to begin this week, but officials on Monday announced a one-week reprieve.

“Closing the shelter will force extremely vulnerable people to fend for themselves on the streets of Kenora,” Ms. Mandhane said in her letter, which she addressed to Greg Rickford, the area’s Conservative MPP and cabinet minister who announced the shutdown on July 29 at a news conference with Kenora officials.

“This will not solve any problems – it will only create new ones,” Ms. Mandhane wrote. “There are specific concerns that seniors with serious health issues will not be able to survive on the street, and that young women who are at risk of being trafficked may face exploitation and violence.”

About 80 per cent of those in the homeless shelter are Indigenous, and the shutdown will have a “disproportionate negative impact” on them, she added.

When the shelter and meal facility was opened in February at Knox United Church in downtown Kenora, local officials called it “wonderful news” for the town of 16,000 people. But now the town’s media are quoting residents who denounce the shelter as “a den of thieves.”

Mr. Rickford’s office declined to comment on the letter from the human-rights commission, except to issue a brief statement citing the one-week delay in the shutdown and emphasizing that the decision to close the shelter was made by Kenora officials. Police in Kenora have reported “an increase in the number of calls for service,” the statement said.

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But homeless people are predicting that the police will have even more crime to handle when the shelter closes.

“Expect more theft, more robberies,” said Brittany Necanapenace, a 30-year-old homeless woman who talked to The Globe and Mail as she used a needle to inject herself with a painkiller on a garbage-strewn path.

“We won’t have the resources to eat or sleep. Expect the crime rate to go up. We’re probably all going to be dragging our tents somewhere.”

Ms. Necanapenace was sitting near a pile of crushed rocks that had been dumped on a grassy space to stop people from sleeping there. “Now we’re not allowed to chill, even if it’s a public place,” she said.

“Our voices will never be heard. We’re the weakest of the weak. If you wear a suit and tie, you make the decisions. Sorry I’m a junkie, people, but we’ll always be here. Instead of helping us with our problems, they’re bashing us.”

Ms. Necanapenace, who said she is an occasional visitor to the homeless shelter, said the city should provide a supervised drug-use site for addicts if it is concerned about people using parks and public spaces. “The drug-use population is getting huge,” she said.

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Ryan Kent, a 23-year-old homeless man who had stayed at the shelter since its opening, said he was planning to return to the Whitedog First Nation to live with a relative.

“The way it’s being shut down is not right,” he said. “It was done at the last minute. We weren’t given much time to figure out what to do. I’ve heard it was done because of complaints by people on the outside. But they have a home and we don’t.”

The shutdown won’t reduce crime, he said. “Most of us will probably have to do break-and-enters in people’s homes to get food.”

Pam Viinikka, co-owner of a restaurant in downtown Kenora, argues that the shelter has attracted drug dealers and prostitutes, deterring tourists and reducing business in the downtown area. “They’ve created a hub for predators,” she said.

Henry Wall, chief administrative officer of the Kenora District Services Board, said the shutdown was one of the most difficult decisions in which he has ever taken part. “I feel heartbroken that we have to do this,” he told a public meeting in Kenora last month.

In an interview with The Globe on Monday, he said the board will hold a meeting on Thursday to discuss the shelter’s future and the letter from the human-rights commission. It could consider the option of keeping the shelter open, he said.

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The Fellowship Centre, which provides meals for the homeless in Kenora, said it will increase its meal program in response to the shutdown, but it is unable to provide any beds.

“The announcement was like a bomb,” said Bernice Albany, the centre’s supervisor. “We felt, ‘Oh my God, where are people going to sleep?’ It’s starting to get really cold at night.”

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