Advertisement

Calls to shut Community Outreach Centre dominate P.E.I. legislative committee meeting

Johnny MacDonald described life around the centre as 'total chaos,' and called on MLAs to have the centre closed permanently. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC - image credit)
Johnny MacDonald described life around the centre as 'total chaos,' and called on MLAs to have the centre closed permanently. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC - image credit)

"Shut the outreach centre down" was the pointed and often-repeated message many people had for MLAs during a legislative committee meeting in Charlottetown.

Johnny MacDonald described life around the centre as "total chaos," and urged members on the committee to scrap the centre permanently.

"Frankly, the neighbourhood is done with it. We want it closed immediately. We want the drug paraphernalia to stop being passed out immediately," he said, followed by a round of applause from many in the seats behind him.

"This has gone on for far too long."

Johnny MacDonald told MLAs that safety in the neighbourhood has gone down considerably since the outreach centre opened its doors.
Johnny MacDonald told MLAs that safety in the neighbourhood has gone down considerably since the outreach centre opened its doors.

Johnny MacDonald told MLAs that safety in the neighbourhood has gone down considerably since the outreach centre opened its doors. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Thursday evening's meeting was the last of four stops on the legislative standing committee on health and social development's tour of the province.

The meeting was focused on policies and programs to address housing and homelessness on Prince Edward Island — and the contentious Community Outreach Centre in the capital city quickly became the centre of conversation.

Roughly 50 people were in attendance at Jack Blanchard Family Centre, with eight presenters speaking in front of committee.

'You should all be ashamed of yourselves'

The outreach centre, located on Euston Street in Charlottetown's old curling club, has been operating since 2021. The centre's aim is to help people dealing with homelessness while opening the path to counselling, employment, food and housing services for community members who need them.

In the years since it opened, the centre has become a heated topic of debate for people living in the Euston Street area, who have said they feel unsafe.

Neighbours of the centre have complained of fights and threats; trespassing, vandalism and thefts; nudity and public indecency; public intoxication and open drug use; and loose needles in surrounding streets and parks.

Most of the speakers Thursday evening were against the outreach centre outright, or called for an end to harm-reduction programs like handing out clean needles.

The Community Outreach Centre is run by registered charitable organization the Adventure Group, and the provincial government owns the building. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

"Not once did I ever worry about a needle in a park," MacDonald said at the meeting, talking about growing up in the downtown Charlottetown neighbourhood.

"The drugs are overpowering the system and it's robbing the people of the help that they need that really want it. This whole thing revolves around drugs."

Hailey Gallant echoed MacDonald's points, saying constant open drug use and crime has been pouring out of the centre into neighbouring streets.

Hailey Gallant has been asking for the province to shut down the Community Outreach Centre in Charlottetown, saying it's helping no one.
Hailey Gallant has been asking for the province to shut down the Community Outreach Centre in Charlottetown, saying it's helping no one.

Hailey Gallant has been asking for the province to shut down the Community Outreach Centre in Charlottetown, saying it's helping no one. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

Gallant said people who live in the area, and those who use the centre, are ignored by the provincial government.

"We are not safe. People using the centre are not safe," she said, adding a comment pointed directly at the MLAs hosting the meeting.

"If you already aren't, you should all be ashamed of yourselves."

It's definitely not working and we need to do something to fix the problem. — Opposition Leader Hal Perry

Other speakers pleaded for members of the committee to urge government to shut down or move the centre, and build housing for people in the downtown core.

Georgina Bassett said housing is the central issue many are facing in the capital region, and many who struggle with mental health and addictions can be helped with a permanent roof over their head.

"We need to put people in homes right now. That's what's going to help them," she said. "That's what's going to make a difference in their lives, is that they can go home at night, and they can have their addictions."

Opposition leader urges government to shut centre down

Opposition Leader Hal Perry responded to another presenter saying the centre is a public safety issue on "so many levels." He wants government to close it.

"My suggestion, basically, is to shut the current centre down as it operates today, hit the reset button and let the government go back to the drawing table," Perry said.

"The current practice is not working. It's definitely not working and we need to do something to fix the problem."

Hal Perry says he plans to introduce a motion in the next legislative sitting calling on government to shut down the centre.
Hal Perry says he plans to introduce a motion in the next legislative sitting calling on government to shut down the centre.

Hal Perry says he plans to introduce a motion in the next legislative sitting calling on government to shut down the centre. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Perry later told CBC News the outcry from the community has been loud, and he plans to introduce a motion in the upcoming legislative sitting calling on the PC government to close the facility.

"Whether it's through the public health office, the Department of Health, or Health P.E.I., they have to take control of the situation immediately," he said.

Perry is on the committee along with fellow Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly, Greens Karla Bernard and Peter Bevan-Baker, as well as PCs Robin Croucher, Sidney MacEwen and Hilton MacLennan — with Susie Dillon as chair.

None of the PC caucus members asked questions during the eight presentations.

Premier Dennis King says government will not be closing the Community Outreach Centre, but that it's not in an ideal location.
Premier Dennis King says government will not be closing the Community Outreach Centre, but that it's not in an ideal location.

Premier Dennis King says government will not be closing the Community Outreach Centre, but that it's not in an ideal location. (Tony Davis/CBC)

In an interview Friday with CBC News, Premier Dennis King said he has a "great sensitivity" for people who live near the outreach centre, but government won't be shutting it down.

"I don't think we need to stop the services. I think we'd all agree, the people who run the outreach centre would agree, it's not in the best location. We need to find a different location," he said.

"I do think we have a responsibility as a government, and a responsibility as Islanders, to have some compassion and some caring for those who need these services and so much more, and that will continue to be our focus."

'Really scared to speak up'

Bernard, the interim Green Party leader, said the King government has failed in harm reduction on Prince Edward Island, calling the province's approach a mess.

Interim Green Leader Karla Bernard agreed with several of the speakers who strongly advocated for more housing to help alleviate the problems in the community.
Interim Green Leader Karla Bernard agreed with several of the speakers who strongly advocated for more housing to help alleviate the problems in the community.

Interim Green Leader Karla Bernard agreed with several of the speakers who strongly advocated for more housing to help alleviate the problems in the community. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

She also added that there are people in support of harm-reduction programs, but won't speak openly about it in fear of retaliation from neighbours.

"There's a lot of threats of violence and fear in the community right now, and so people who support these initiatives are really scared to speak up," Bernard told CBC News.

"They'll contact me privately, but a lot of them wouldn't come here tonight to speak because they feared it wasn't a safe place to speak in favour of some of these things."

CBC News did receive an email from a person who was not attending the meeting for that reason. That person wrote they are "hesitant to share space with those who vehemently oppose these programs."