Kenora councillors are looking for a more effective way to deal with social issues in the community, as they consider passing a loitering bylaw. During yesterday's committee of the whole meeting, Mayor Dan Reynard said there needed to be more of a focus on public safety.
"When we talk to the OPP, if an encampment were set up on the stage underneath the Whitecap, there is nothing that allows the OPP to go in and just move it," the mayor said.
"Same with somebody sleeping on the streets. There's nothing illegal about somebody sleeping on the street. We're trying to provide a tool for the OPP to deal with the major issues," he added.
He noted council is getting bombarded by messages from businesses and ratepayers, including reports of assaults under the Whitecap and assaults on police officers
"It's obvious this summer that this issue has gotten a lot worse," the mayor said during yesterday's meeting.
Following these reports, the city has held recent meetings with the OPP, Kenora District Services Board and MPP Greg Rickford.
Support services and alternative venues for the homeless have been unavailable, suspended or delayed due to COVID-19.
With councillors split 3-3 in their comments during yesterday's meeting, the mayor may have the deciding vote, when the bylaw comes before council for a final vote July 21. Councillors Andrew Poirier, Rory McMillan and Chris Van Walleghem were in support of the bylaw.
Those opposed included downtown business owners Mort Goss and Kirsi Ralko, as well as Sharon Smith.
In his comments, Goss said businesses already have the option to put No Loitering signs in front of their storefronts.
"What value do we have for now persecuting a bunch of people who have no place to live, that provincial and federal governments have not dealt with. It's come back down to us. I suggest what we're doing now is going to be counterproductive. It's retrograde, and it's going to cause a lot of grief," he said.
After asking Manitoba visitors not to visit due to the coronavirus earlier this year, Goss didn't think a repeat of the tactics used in the 1970's would be good for the community.
Smith said the bylaw contained language that left too much discretion to the judgment of the police officers involved, but staff noted the OPP don't currently have the tools to effectively deal with the social issues described above.
The community is revisiting an issue it faced last year, when the new downtown shelter was closed, after complaints about vandalism, assaults, human trafficking and open drug use.
Last summer, hotel owners said they were advising clients not to go downtown -- especially after hours -- due to safety concerns.
During yesterday's debate, the mayor and his supporters noted the longer-term solutions were still months away. They include:
- 30 treatment beds near Evergreen Rink,
- 28 units in a new remand centre off River Road,
- 54 affordable housing units in the planning stages
An isolation centre was set up at the Keewatin Memorial Arena earlier this year for those in need of a safe space to self-isolate, but it has since closed, due to the low number of cases in the area.
Private developers are also adding housing units, which will add to the total number of housing units available in the community, even if not all of the new units are considered affordable.
Councillors invited feedback on the issue from Indigenous people, including the Kenora Chiefs Advisory and Grand Council Treaty 3, along with community groups like the chamber of commerce and Harbourtown BIZ. However, staff noted the window of opportunity for including their comments before next week's council meeting would be about two days.
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