A tent city won’t be sanctioned in Sarnia this winter.
Sarnia police, Lambton County’s social services and city council have rejected the idea, citing too few resources to keep the homeless safe in an encampment.
Coun. Chrissy McRoberts championed the idea and, when it failed to get support at city council on Monday, warned the issue isn’t going to go away.
“Please, if we could just come up with solutions, that’s going to help these folks who cannot find somewhere to stay for the winter,” she said. “We are all in this together.”
McRoberts said, at the very least, Monday’s discussion kept the issue front and centre.
Before dismissing the possibility of a tent city, council heard from two central Sarnia residents adamantly opposed to it.
The first, former city councillor Bev MacDougall, said her family has lived on Maria Street for 44 years and regularly sees the suffering faced by growing numbers of homeless in her neighbourhood.
A sanctioned encampment with insufficient resources would only add hardship by increasing their insecurity and challenging their safety.
“Please…don’t take our community down this road that is sure to end in failure,” MacDougall said.
She said that over time her neighbourhood has become “hyperloaded” with troubled people not getting the help they need.
MacDougall said her household is grateful for Lambton County’s “Housing First” philosophy, the Sarnia Police IMPACT and MHEART strategies, and Habitat for Humanity’s intention to build more affordable housing.
“Within that, we want our human rights recognized that entitles us to live in a safe neighbourhood.
“Listen to the unhoused and what they want…a place where they can lock their door, where they and their possessions can be safe, and they can live out of the elements,” she said.
MacDougall also urged the city to consider providing land within its 100 parks for more small housing developments. Providing parcels of underutilized parkland will distribute affordable housing throughout the community, she said.
A second resident, Sharon Docherty, said she lives near Rainbow Park on Christina Street where many homeless set up tents during the pandemic.
A tent city should not be considered for a residential area, she said.
When multiple tents were at Rainbow Park, Docherty said her husband found used needles and an empty pill bottle in their front yard. The couple’s security camera showed a man injecting fentanyl into his arm and a woman smoking, then urinating on their porch.
“I offered some assistance and asked they do everything in their power to make sure it didn’t happen again, which it hasn’t,” Docherty said.
More recently, police have kept tents from being erected at Rainbow Park and seniors and families are returning to use the park, said Docherty.
“A tent encampment is more likely to perpetuate the struggles facing our city’s homeless population… tent cities don’t have good results and are often a magnet for drug dealers, the likes of which we rarely see now in Rainbow Park,” she said.
Coun. George Vandenberg said he is concerned about local citizens who are afraid to leave their homes because of people experiencing homelessness.
“A lady in her 90s called me the other day and said she is terrified of the idea of a tent city (near her)…she doesn’t walk to the grocery store anymore because she is terrified,” he said. “…I just want you to realize there are people hiding in their houses because they are scared.”
Both Vandenberg and Coun. Brian White thanked McRoberts for bringing the issue forward to continue the conversation to find solutions to homelessness.