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Anti-Homeless Rhetoric at City Hall and the Wolfe Street Shelter

Written by
Robert Gibson
and
and
October 18, 2021
Anti-Homeless Rhetoric at City Hall and the Wolfe Street Shelter

On Monday, October 4, the City of Peterborough hosted a virtual General Committee meeting. During this meeting city staff brought forward a proposal to reduce the hours at the emergency homeless shelter on Wolfe Street from 24 hours to 12 hours as well as measures to increase security. After a lengthy debate which included several proposed additions to the staff report, inaccurate statements and stereotypes of unhoused individuals, the fate of the Wolfe Street shelter was postponed until October 18 at which point another meeting will take place. 

Councillor Riel, Housing Co-Chair and Social Services Chair stated that “ [Unhoused] people are getting three meals a day … are putting $731 in their pocket to spend whatever they would like.” This statement contradicts information provided by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services “A homeless person who is eligible for assistance will receive an amount for basic needs, but will not receive an amount for shelter until a dwelling is retained.” Councillor Riel also indicated that it was acceptable to revert to a 12-hour shelter system after the winter but not during the winter, staff proposed December 1, 2021, despite risks to unhoused individuals throughout the year from inclement weather and increased extreme heat. As a result of the pandemic, many locations once used by unhoused individuals may not be available throughout the year. 

Bill C-75 was also mentioned as a cause of issues near the Wolfe Street Emergency Shelter. Bill C75 is legislation that changes the Criminal Code and Youth Criminal Criminal Justice Act. Sections 212 and 234 of Act to amend the Criminal Code, the Youth Criminal Justice Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, as enacted are meant to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in jail for minor offences and an increase in pre-trial detention. In addition, under Section 368 bail conditions on youth are limited to those needed for criminal justice purposes and that can reasonably be complied with. This way a young person is less likely to be in violation of a bail condition. 

Councillor Pappas said that the Wolfe Street shelter has become a no-barrier shelter. A low barrier shelter is defined in the city staff report as a shelter where there is no requirement for a “sobriety test or identification to enter.” Some people have lifetime bans from the shelter system as pointed out by Dan Hennessay, a local advocate for homeless and marginalized people. A city staff report specifically said that the shelter is not a no-barrier shelter. Councillor Pappas also shared stories about people feeling unsafe as a result of the perceptions of homeless people and property damage. The article “Carelessly linking crime to being homeless adds to the harmful stigma showcases how media harms unhoused individuals and negatively influences perceptions of unhoused people. In the Arthur article “Examining the Examiner Covering Crime in Peterborough” it was said that “depictions of disadvantaged people are often dehumanizing” and that coverage lacks in-depth analysis or greater context surrounding crime. 

Councillor Wright said that when he spoke to unhoused individuals they expressed that “people are making decisions about us without really understanding us.” 

There was a deferral motion by Mayor Therrien which was passed; the General Committee will be meeting on October 18, prior to a final vote at a Council meeting on October 25.

The General Committee meeting should be placed in the context of displacement of unhoused individuals, the pandemic, high costs of housing, the opioid crisis and policing. In the summer of 2019, the state of the housing crisis caught the media’s attention due to the tent city. The response from the City has since resulted in greater criminalization of unhoused individuals. In an article titled “Intersecting hazards, intersectional identities: A baseline Critical Environmental Justice analysis of US homeless,” Erin Goodling provided examples of how displacement impacts people's health as a result of living in increasingly contaminated sites such as railways.  

I interviewed Christian Harvey, from One City, over the phone prior to the meeting. Harvey said that if the problem is people hanging around the shelter, further criminalization of homeless people and limiting services is not the way to address this issue. Harvey further stated that “[we’re] never going to be able to punish our way out of homelessness and [the city] can’t make people disappear.” Harvey pointed out that the Wolfe Street emergency shelter is paid until 2022, so the justification related to financing doesn’t make sense. The fact that there are 106 (likely higher) unhoused individuals outside that are known, and there are only 91 shelter beds, was also discussed. This shows that there are not enough spaces available for everyone.    

I asked the community about their thoughts on the Wolfe Street proposal via twitter and email.

The responses from Twitter are featured below.

@SnoddonTim tweeted: “There is no quick solution. It’s a pure reality of modern capitalism. The closed bureaucratic measures are disturbing but in their defence, it’s another worldwide dilemma that both the Trudeau and Ford governments throw at the city to fix on their own.  That will never work.”
@chuglyone tweeted: “They made tents illegal as housing now they want to put homeless out into the cold for 12 hours a day in the dead of winter That's inhumane”

Dan Hennessey forwarded a letter sent to Council which shared details of people who passed away as a result of homelessness and being kicked out of shelters as a result of drug addiction. One person with a lifetime ban was “convicted of breaking into vacant houses and buildings trying to stay warm.” The letter went on to say there was no consultation or solutions offered, such as needle disposal bins or garbage cans, for example. 

It is important to ask councillors to engage with unhoused individuals prior to making decisions that impact them and to challenge stereotypes by critically examining what is said and spoken, as well as question and challenge anti-homeless rhetoric in daily life.  

The Community Research for Social Change Lab at Trent sent a letter and petition with nearly 400 signatures. This letter challenged the notion that the demand for shelter is being met. Some of the shelter spaces are only available for youth and if all unhoused individuals use the shelter system then there will be a lack of beds according to the letter. Additionally, there is adequate provincial funding to maintain the Wolfe Street shelter at its current operating hours as the letter points out.

An opportunity to speak on this issue is on October 25 after a special General Committee meeting on October 18 2021.

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