Mayors, police leaders and businesses in Ontario are calling on the province to provide more help in dealing with the growing homelessness and opioid crises gripping both big cities and small towns.
Ontario’s Big City Mayors, a group that includes 29 mayors of cities with a population of 100,000 or more, requested an emergency meeting with the province and Premier Doug Ford two months ago to address homelessness, the opioid crisis and mental health, said Cam Guthrie, the organization’s chair.
So far, the province has not responded to that request, said Guthrie, who is also the mayor of Guelph, Ont. He noted the group’s caucus is “quite disappointed” to be kept waiting on such an important issue.
The mayors’ caucus met with Michael Tibollo, the associate minister of mental health, at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario annual conference this week, but Guthrie said a meeting with multiple ministries is needed to address such a complex problem.
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“Every day that we aren’t getting together with other stakeholders to try to come to some solutions is yet another day that the struggle continues and the crisis gets worse,” he said.
Municipalities across the province are dealing with an increasing homeless population, spurred by the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing distaste and distrust of large, shelters with congregate settings.
As a result, encampments large and small have popped in many communities, where they have become a lightning rod. Many have been cleared with force by police, only to see smaller ones pop up elsewhere.
Guthrie said cities are not set up to deal with the health-care needs of those living on the streets and others living with addictions, noting health care is under provincial jurisdiction.
A spokeswoman for Steve Clark, the minister of municipal affairs and housing, said the province is “ensuring all Ontarians have a safe, stable, and affordable place to call home, especially our most vulnerable.”
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The Ontario government is investing nearly $25 million in new annual funding in a program that helps people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness find housing, services and supports, Victoria Podbielski said. She added that brings the province’s total annual investment in homelessness prevention programs to almost half a billion dollars.
Other organizations are backing the Big City Mayors’ call for a meeting with the province on the twin crises. Among them are the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, the Ontario Chiefs of Police and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.
“They need to be involved and coming up with the best solutions and why we can do it effectively and efficiently because right now we’re spending a lot of money, but we’re not getting the results,” said Colin Best, AMO’s new president and a councillor with the Region of Halton.
Joe Couto, spokesman for the Ontario Chiefs of Police, said community policing involves “tackling the root causes of poverty, homelessness, and addicts of any sort that cause people to come into contact with the justice system.”
“In our view, if we can address these issues at their source, we could save people a lot of pain and involvement with the justice system,” he said.
The Ontario Chamber of Commerce said it endorses the call for provincial partnership “to accelerate health and economic-focused solutions to this crisis in the short- and long-term.”
“The opioid crisis continues to have significant socioeconomic impacts on Ontario’s businesses and communities, in particular in northern areas, the construction industry, and on racialized and other marginalized groups,” said Sara Fegelman, a senior policy analyst with the organization.
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