A government-led team of politicians and Indigenous leaders held its first meeting Wednesday as residents in Happy Valley-Goose Bay urged swift action to address a growing number of transient people in the community.
The Acute Response Team, established this week, seeks to find immediate solutions to a problem that the town’s mayor says has become a safety issue.
“We brought the concerns that our community was in a crisis situation because we had seen an increase in that escalation in terms of transient folks within our community and the things that were associated with that in terms of public safety,” said Mayor George Andrews shortly after the meeting.
The team brings together representatives from the provincial cabinet, Indigenous leaders, the local MHA and Andrews himself.
Andrews said it’s an annual occurrence: people from northern communities arrive in the central Labrador town in the spring — sometimes for medical and court appointments. They often stay for the summer, not wanting to return to their communities, he said.
However, this year has been a particular challenge with an unprecedented number of calls to the town’s municipal enforcement officer for public intoxication, according to Andrews.
On May 23, Andrews said the town’s municipal enforcement officer had counted 287 complaints of public intoxication, and by the end of the month — just eight days later — it had grown to 410.
In December, Lukie Karpik, 35, a transiently homeless man in Happy Valley-Goose Bay died a short distance from the Housing Hub, the town’s homeless shelter. He did not try to gain entry, according to shelter staff.
A month later, Frederica Benuen, 28, of Natuashish died mere feet away from the Labrador Inn, a for-profit overflow shelter. The need has grown so much, however, that the Labrador Inn is regularly filled with guests.
Speaking to CBC Investigates this winter, Michelle Kinney, a deputy minister in the Nunatsiavut government and operator of the Housing Hub, said the issues contributing to the homeless and transiently homeless crisis is complex and can be traced back to intergeneration trauma and decades of government neglect.
“I think it’s a child welfare issue. I think it’s a justice issue. I think it’s a women’s issue, in some cases. It’s a health issue, a mental health issue,” said Kinney said at the time.
“I just think it’s a lack of resources and integration of services that haven’t been wrapped around individuals early enough in their lives.”
Meanwhile, Andrews said the premier approved funding for two municipal enforcement officers but said the municipality is limited in what it can do to deal with the root causes of the problem.
“I don’t have the luxury of — from around our staff — to include social workers or caseworkers or crisis team members, things like that. The only thing we have in our tool box that we asked for is the additional municipal enforcement officer to help enhance public safety.”
Core issues not resolved, says resident
Mene Woodward, who is an owner-operator of six businesses — most of them in the hospitality sector — said in a public meeting June 17 that the way in which homelessness is treated is not working.
“I have heard discussing in public and private about treating the symptoms of this issue. More security, do more cleanup, better street lighting, cut more trees, put up more cameras, have a larger police presence, and put thousands and thousands of dollars into Band-Aid solutions,” said Woodward at the town council meeting.
Woodward said it is putting town residents and transient people at risk, without the core issue ever being resolved.
“We need to get to the root of the issue, the root — which may be mental health, addictions, trauma, systemic racism, inadequate housing, economic barriers, PTSD, among other factors.”
Andrews said the first meeting was “good” but stressed he will continue to lobby for urgent resources at the next meeting.
“We’re hoping that you know, we can generate some good ideas among the group for some tangible steps that will work with us immediately or in a very, very short order to try to enhance the safety perspective for our community,” Andrews said.
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