Sarnia police inadvertently discovered a large encampment this week near Exmouth Street, drawing attention once again to the city’s challenging homelessness problem.
No one was at the encampment when members of the newly-expanded Integrated Mobile Police & Crisis Team (IMPACT) came upon the collection of nine tents, makeshift beds, clothing and chairs.
But Sarnia Police Deputy Chief Julie Craddock said there was evidence of recent habitation and hygiene kits handed out by local agencies to help the homeless.
IMPACT officers are attempting to locate the people who are living there to see if they can be connected to social services, mental health services or any other agency that may be of help, Craddock said.
Anyone with information about who may be connected to the Exmouth Street encampment, is asked to email [email protected].
IMPACT will also work with bylaw enforcement officers to dismantle the encampment, Craddock said.
“We know encampments can have unsafe conditions for the people who are living there. If there is shelter space available, they will take down encampments.”
IMPACT is a four-person team of police that provides outreach to high risk and vulnerable people.
The team – which does not do enforcement – frequently works with people who are precariously housed and on the cusp of being homeless, said Craddock.
“When I look at homelessness, it’s about making sure people have access to the services that they need when they need them,” she said.
There’s visible homelessness in Sarnia but also people on the verge of homelessness. More has to be done to keep those people housed, she said. That’s part of the IMPACT team’s mandate.
In this case, the officers “stumbled” across the encampment, Craddock said. If the inhabitants are located, they will be offered help to access emergency shelter beds.
“One of the challenges that we run into is that not everyone that we interact with actually wants to be connected, and those become complex because they may be dealing with mental health and addiction issues, and not able to make a decision that is best for them in the long term,” she said.
“It’s not that there are no services to connect to. Sometimes there is a refusal to be connected.”
The deputy chief said it’s natural that some local residents are cautious, even nervous, about dealing with homeless people.
“That’s where police can help,” she said. “We are trained to recognize whether there is a weapon we need to be concerned about.”
Anyone who becomes aware of an encampment is encouraged to call the Sarnia Police non-emergency number (519-344-8861).
“We’ll send a team and assess it,” Craddock said.
Craddock commented on the IMPACT team’s work following a Chamber of Commerce Women in Business breakfast Thursday where she was guest speaker.
She told the breakfast crowd of about 55 that she learned empathy for the homeless when she was young and had an alcoholic uncle who lived on the streets of Toronto.
“(My mother) taught us that some people get dealt a crappy hand, but that they too deserve to be treated with dignity,” Craddock said. “She taught us to speak out for those who couldn’t speak for themselves.”
Craddock, who has been a police officer for more than 30 years, became Sarnia’s Deputy Police Chief seven weeks ago.
She is Sarnia’s first female and first Indigenous deputy police chief and said she is committed to mental wellness of frontline workers, recruiting more female officers and creating a “transparent organization that holds each other accountable when stuff goes wrong.
“My ask is that you hold (city police) to a high level of accountability but also, when you see a cop out there, say thank you,” she said.