Why Kenora’s homeless shelter is shutting down — and what comes next

The opening, and temporary closing, of the Community Services Hub reveals a city that’s struggling with a homelessness problem and how to solve it
By Jon Thompson - Published on Aug 09, 2019
Kenora–Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford announced late last month that the 48-bed Community Services Hub would close on August 12 for a six-week “reset.”  (Jon Thompson)

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KENORA — Only five months after a much-anticipated $1.1 million homeless shelter opened in downtown Kenora, it’s set to close for six weeks because of an unexpected flood of street drugs from Manitoba.

Late last month, Kenora–Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford announced that the 48-bed Community Services Hub for men and women would close on August 12 for a “reset.” During that time, more than a dozen partner agencies will come together to work toward a new way to manage the shelter, which is in the basement of the historic Knox United Church.

“We want our city back,” said Rickford, who is also the minister of energy, mines, northern development, and Indigenous affairs.

“We’ve seen an influx of the kind of drug and the kind of people who usually accompany it and the kind of illicit activity to support it,” he said, referring to the crystal methamphetamine that is believed to be coming from Winnipeg. “In defence of all groups trying to do something here, we’ve faced an unprecedented challenge that has been born out of the last six months that was unimaginable to most people.”

The facility, managed by the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre, was intended to house Kenora’s homeless population. The shelter was to provide life-skills training and counselling sessions for clients to get them back on their feet. But the opening coincided with an increase in crystal-meth use among intravenous drug users in a city already suffering from an opioid epidemic. According to the Northwestern Health Unit’s manager of sexual health and harm reduction, Gillian Lunny, just 2 per cent of participants in Kenora’s needle-exchange program said in 2016 that crystal meth was their drug of choice. In 2018, that number was 14 per cent.

The situation within the newly opened facility soon became untenable, even though all the beds were not filled.

Construction was still under way when patrons began moving in, according to shelter staff. It quickly became apparent that the space wasn’t sufficient. When laundry equipment malfunctioned, clients’ belongings took over areas that had been intended for programming such as life skills and counselling. Given the tight indoor space and limited outdoor space, shelter residents took to sleeping on the stairs and on neighbours’ lawns.

“You need to have a proper facility to house people who are on drugs,” says Patti Fairfield, Ne-Chee’s executive director. “We’re not a treatment facility; we’re a shelter. How do you say, ‘Sorry, you’re a drug user. You can’t come in here at night’?”

Compounding the issue is the fact that construction has closed most of the streets in downtown Kenora, pushing vehicle and foot traffic past the shelter, where the evidence of homelessness and intravenous drug use had become more apparent than ever.

Businesses in the Kenora Chamber of Commerce and hoteliers in the Kenora Hospitality Alliance say they’ve been fielding regular complaints. “[Visitors are] saying, ‘What happened to this town?” says KHA chair Teresa Gallik. “It happened very quickly. They don’t feel safe downtown at night.”

Local business owners were concerned that the city’s increasingly visible drug problem was hurting their summer season. When Chad Gropp, who owns a catering business, spoke at a packed community forum on public safety on July 31, he challenged the OPP to act: “Let’s address the problem: shut these drug houses down. Please come to my store, stand in my window, and watch the bullshit going on. I’m sick of it. Everybody else is.”

At that same meeting, Kenora mayor, Dan Reynard, said residents have told him that they feel like “prisoners in their own homes.” In an attempt to displace the homeless, city administration cut down trees and filled park spaces with truckloads of crushed rocks. The decision met with intense criticism from some residents, but Reynard backed his officials. “We recognize that, every time we make a decision, there could be negative impacts somewhere else, but that was the decision we made at the time, and, as the mayor and a member of the council team, I support the decision,” Reynard said.

Fairfield concedes her staff was caught off guard by the problems that the shelter faced. “We were looking to find some solutions to some of the things we encountered that we didn’t anticipate,” she says, noting the space crunch that impeded programming and other client supports. “I think we could have worked through those,” she says. “You don’t close a door on a facility and think everything’s going to miraculously change over 45 days.”

She worries that the temporary closure will put at-risk people in greater jeopardy. “We have some very, very vulnerable people who will not survive on the street because of health issues,” she says. “We have young girls staying at the shelter who are being human-trafficked. With the shelter closing, we’re putting those very vulnerable people in a very dangerous situation.”

Jennifer McKibbon, a co-chair of Making Kenora Home, a local anti-poverty advocacy group formed in 2006, says the facility had not yet set up vitally needed supports and counselling to help its residents cope. “You can’t just give them a place to sleep and feed them and expect them to be okay. It’s not going to happen,” she says. “It’s not enough when you’re dealing with an addiction, when you’re dealing with trauma and pain and loss.”

After August 12, homeless people in Kenora will be left with few options. Jory Smith is a self-described meth and opioid addict who lived and dealt drugs in Lila’s Block, a building that burned down just weeks after the shelter opened. More than 100 people were squatting there, he estimates. Since then, Smith has been sleeping on friends’ couches and spending a few nights a month at the shelter. The public and private spaces that people once used for intravenous drug use have been disappearing, he says, and it’s going to get worse when the shelter closes.

“I think the jail is going to become overpopulated,” he says. “I think there are going to be health risks for the elderly people who are homeless … [Other people] are going to need to help. If I had land, I would help. I wish there was more that I could do.”

While the shelter space is being reconfigured during the closure, local officials and experts say they will try to develop solutions that will satisfy the broader community.

Henry Wall, the chief administrative officer of the Kenora District Services Board, which funds the shelter, emerged on Tuesday from meetings with more than a dozen social and political organizations, including representatives of the city, the KDSB, Grand Council Treaty #3, and the health unit. He announced that he will lead a working group that will reorganize how services are delivered to the homeless, as well as to those living with addictions and mental-health challenges.

“We need all levels of government to get here with resources to address this,” Wall said.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm for quite a few years that something like this was coming. It’s here now, and Kenora is not ready. To continue on would have been a disservice to the people who are trying to help. It’s no longer good enough for people to survive one more day.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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