The executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Northeastern Ontario can’t understand why organizations that actually work with the city’s marginalized downtown population would be excluded from the downtown task team set up to address the issue facing Sudbury’s core, since so many of those issues have to do with homelessness.
On Oct. 20, Cory Roslyn, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Northeastern Ontario (EFSNEO) and a key member of the city’s Homelessness Network, found out that Mayor Bigger had formed and held a meeting for a task team to help in the downtown, a place where the EFSNEO and the Homelessness Network does a great deal of their outreach work and have for many years.
She found out about it from a Sudbury.com article, the day after the meeting.
That didn’t sit right with Roslyn, she said in an interview. Why would organizations that actually work with the downtown population not know about such a meeting, she wondered. So, she wrote a detailed letter and emailed it to Mayor Brian Bigger’s office.
“Our intentions were to secure a seat at the table in hopes that the mayor would reconsider the approach of the task team from that of enforcement and criminalization, to an approach that considers real solutions to the social issues contributing to the problems downtown,” Roslyn said.
She received no reply.
The EFSNEO is one of many frontline, charitable, social service organizations whose mandate it is to provide services to the populations at the centre of the task team’s focus: the marginalized and homeless men and women, many of whom suffer from addiction and mental illness, and who are often criminalized rather than treated.
“We know these individuals by name, we hear their stories, we witness their suffering and we are their resource for support when they need it. Our successes come from never forgetting the humanity in each person who walks through our doors,” said Roslyn.
She notes that the majority of those individuals and groups asked by the mayor to sit on the downtown task team do not have regular, direct contact with those who are at the centre of the issues.
“As individuals in leadership roles, no matter what organization or business we represent, it is important we recognize the privilege we hold, that creates our worldview, allows us to ‘other’ those whom we don’t understand and restricts our capacity for empathy and compassion,” Roslyn said.
And this is why, in her opinion, the downtown task team is focussed in one direction, instead of looking at the issues downtown more holistically.
“When you have 22 seats at a virtual table, and nine of those are taken by high-level employees of the City of Greater Sudbury, three by police, three from the (Downtown Sudbury) BIA, two from NOSM, and only two voices from frontline service organizations, it is not surprising that the outcome of the meeting does not adequately consider the social issues,” she said.
When the downtown task team gathered on Oct. 30, it made some decisions as to first steps. Those steps included a plan to add LED street-lighting to downtown as a security measure.
“Lighting may add a layer of perceived safety, but does very little — if nothing — to assist the homeless population,” said Roslyn.
“Our organization sees little value for dollars spent in LED lighting and enforcement-based police approaches; lighting dark corners and policing those struggling with mental illness and addictions serves to displace already marginalized populations out of the public view. These tools only hide the problem; they do not address the root causes, or provide meaningful solutions.”
When asked whether there were organizations that requested a place on the downtown task team that were denied, Bigger acknowledged that there were requests that he was forced to turn down, but defended the decision.
“It is, admittedly, tough drawing a line,” he said. “But you know, many of these organizations are all interrelated.”
As for Roslyn’s criticism that the team isn’t addressing the root problem, the mayor agreed there are certain aspects of the planning that address only symptoms, not causes.
“What we've done is we have stepped up and increased the amount of garbage collection, we're in the process of cleaning up graffiti,” he said. “We've added some additional security in the downtown. We've enhanced the lighting in downtown and there's more work to be done to further enhance the lighting.
“But all of that is addressing what you would call more symptomatic elements of the challenges that people are feeling and seeing in the downtown.”
Despite the lack of representation from groups that actually work with the homeless, Bigger said he feels “we have representation from the core groups.” With so many community organizations in the city, he said the task team could find ways for the groups to communicate better.
Bigger, however, also said the task team’s goals aren't solely related to the issues faced by the homeless and marginalized people in the downtown core, but also the needs of downtown business owners, residents who journey downtown to work, shop and for appointments, and visitors to the city.
“The challenges we're dealing with, from the businesses, from the people living downtown, the people working downtown and the general public, who might be going downtown for different services, a lot of people were talking about the amount of garbage on the streets, the graffiti, (and) the gatherings of people in the downtown and the general sense and feeling of insecurity by people who are going downtown for very various reasons.
“And so, that's one element that we've tried to address, and (we) know many of those issues can be dealt with fairly (and) fairly quickly.”
Bigger also defended his decision not to have a representative agency from the Homelessness Network take part in the Oct. 30 task team meeting, saying it was a question of numbers and logistics.
“I think the last meeting we had (Oct. 30) we had 30 people on one Zoom call. And so it gets challenging when you start getting into large numbers.”
Roslyn doesn’t buy it. She said rather than using the limits of Zoom meetings as an excuse to exclude certain community groups, she said the mayor should make more thoughtful choices about who to invite.
“There are at least a dozen organizations who are actively involved with the populations downtown who would have valuable input and contributions to make,” she said.
It isn’t about Elizabeth Fry or another Homelessness Network member being invited, she added, but about “including the voices of the organizations who work with the population involved.”
And despite the mayor’s argument that the task team’s focus has to be broader than simply the issues facing homeless or nearly homeless people downtown, Roslyn said the lack of social services, addiction services and mental health services available to marginalized people is the crux of the issue in the city’s core.
“Ultimately the issues boil down to a lack of safe, affordable housing, and the lack of free, accessible addiction and mental health care. Punitive approaches have done nothing to solve their problems, and in fact, have furthered the cycle of addiction, incarceration and homelessness.”
Curious who participated in the latest task team meeting? Sudbury.com was able to secure the list.
City of Greater Sudbury: Mayor Brian Bigger; Ward 10 Coun. Fern Cormier; Ward 4 Coun. Geoff McCausland: Ward 12 Coun. Landry-Altmann: Melissa Zanette, Chief of Staff: Ed Archer CAO: Steve Jacques, General Manager; Brendan Adair, Manager of Security & By-Law Services; Tony Cecutti, General Manager of Infrastructure Services.
Greater Sudbury Police Services: Chief Paul Pedersen; Inspector Sara Cunningham; Deputy Chief Sheilah Weber.
Healthcare organizations: Dr. Penny Sutcliffe and Sandra Laclé, Director Health Promotion from Public Health Sudbury and Districts; Angela Recollet, Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre; Patty MacDonald, CEO, Canadian Mental Health Association; Dr. David Marsh, Associate Dean of Research, and Dr. Mike Franklyn, Faculty, both from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine; Maureen McLelland, Regional Vice-President, Cancer Care and Vice-President, Social Accountability at Health Sciences North.
Downtown BIA: Maureen Luoma, Executive Director; Kendra MacIsaac, Co-chair; Brian McCullach, Co-chair.
Jenny Lamothe, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com