Resolving the social issues on the streets of Kenora should be a public health issue that involves all levels of government, as they respond to the coronavirus.

Raj Dhir is the executive director for the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and in an interview earlier today he talked about the challenges facing homeless people during the pandemic.

"There are fewer places for vulnerable and homeless people to go, and if there are fewer places for those individuals to go, then those individuals are forced to put themselves in living arrangements that are unsafe and include heightened exposure to COVID-19," he noted.

With staff working from home, there are fewer agencies able to open their doors, so fewer safe places for those on the street to get help, Dhir continued. As a result, Dhir hoped to see leaders at all levels of government continue to get involved in finding solutions to the long-standing issues in the city.

"I think just in terms of the response to the pandemic, what's critical is taking care of and addressing the needs of vulnerable people. I think that should be reason enough for higher levels of government to be involved in this issue," he said.

The summer weather has brought about a return of the public safety issues facing the city. Last year, they caused hotel owners to tell guests not to venture downtown, especially after hours. The situation has been made worse in recent days, as police warned of the overdoses associated with a dangerous shipment of drugs, which may be related to sudden deaths in the area.

The issue came to a head following an assault on harbourfront staff and the removal of campers on the Whitecap Pavilion stage earlier this month. 

This reality is leading community leaders to revisit their strategies for the tourism industry, which is important to the city's economy as it transitions from mill closures and recovers from the spring shutdown associated with the pandemic.

The city has a plan to invest another $25 million in harbourfront improvements, in an effort to attract visitors to the community, but as one councillor said the strategy doesn't make sense, if people don't feel safe.  

Councillors voted against a loitering bylaw earlier this week, in response to opposition from First Nation leaders and the human rights commission. However, they also invited input on solutions to the public safety issues.

The NeChee Friendship Centre has released research on the needs of those on the street, based on interviews with those vulnerable people.At the top of the list is a need to feel safe and a sense of belonging.

A return of the Bear Clan Patrol announced late yesterday, is meant to help with this. They offer more robust funding from the province to be announced this morning, should help alleviate the situation. The Bear Clan was created in Winnipeg in response to similar situations in the Manitoba capital, and members offer to help support vulnerable people in the city in a non-violent way. 

The Kenora District Services Board is offering to assist with longer-term solutions, including housing units, treatment beds and a new remand centre. Along with offering safe places to go, the wrap-around supports are meant to help restore a sense of belonging.

The All Nations Health Team created last fall promises to allow those in the region the opportunity to improve responses to local problems. For the first time, the team includes First Nation, Metis and non-Indigenous agencies in the decision-making process in the hopes of providing a more seamless and effective approach for patients, who are mostly Indigenous.

Their work involves the construction of a new district hospital and the possibility of a health care campus, as well as outreach programs associated with the building. These programs currently include mental health and addictions, along with harm reduction programs. 

For more information:

Bear Clan Patrol returns to Kenora

Human rights commission calls on leaders to assist vulnerable