As concerns continue to rise about a growing number of homeless and transient people living along the trails in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, the Inuit government running the community's only non-profit homeless shelter says public education is one place to start.
Residents have been voicing concerns over public safety and a need for more social services in the town, including during a rally on Friday.
The concerns are focused around an estimated 80 people living in the woods, along the town's trail system. Some residents say there have been issues of harassment, assaults and vandalism.
However, the Nunatsiavut Government which runs the Housing Hub in Happy Valley-Goose Bay says more understanding is needed when it comes to the issue, before rhetoric escalates.
"I see things escalating and becoming more volatile and I'm not sure how you ease some of that tension. I think community education is part of it, but people have to be open to being educated," said Michelle Kinney, deputy minister of health and social development.
Kinney said the people using the shelter are continually lumped together, when it's a very diverse group of individuals.
There are people who have been there for four years, while others stay a short term. There are also seniors who aren't able to find housing on their own, she said, and 31 people in the supportive living program and eight apartments who have only drop-in support.
And there is the transient population that uses the shelter's resources when needed, she said. The shelter has a nurse practitioner who sees clients, income support workers, legal aid, mental health supports, outreach workers from Innu Nation and more.
"It's overcrowded, it's not adequate," Kinney said of the shelter. "But I think for the most part we do the best that we can to meet the needs of both client groups."
Kinney said too often people think of the vulnerable population as only one type of person or one group, because those individuals may be more visible than others. But she hopes residents of the community can start to realize it's a spectrum of people who need help in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
"I think that you combat that on an individual basis by trying to speak to individuals and explain. People have a whole variety of life experiences and things. They've been through levels of trauma," Kinney said.
"There's a reason for people to have addictions issues. It's not something that people just choose," Kinney said.
There are some people that need to be held responsible and incarcerated for behaviours, but that is not going to help everyone, Kinney said. People need to work together to consider what's best for the town, she said.
"I don't think that there's any one answer," Kinney said. "And public safety is important, but I think for a lot of people that translates into enforcement, and enforcement isn't the only answer either. It's part of the puzzle but it's not the whole puzzle."
Short term actions needed: RCMP staff evaluation and Indigenous liaison
In the short term, there are some things that could immediately help, she said. Kinney said that includes the Justice and Public Safety Minister not increasing RCMP staffing as some residents are calling for, but instead RCMP proposing their needs to the Minister, Kinney said.
"Then Minister Hogan can respond and the public can determine whether his response is appropriate, but I'm not sure he can answer everyone's questions or do what the public necessarily thinks he should be doing."
The Justice and Public Safety Minister is expected to visit the town this week.
As well, Kinney wants to see the Indigenous liaison position reinstated in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay RCMP detachment and better cultural orientation for all professionals in town.
"Indigenous people are part of this community and they are large part of the population, not just the transient population, not just people at the shelter," Kinney said.
"That needs to be recognized and the history of trauma, a lot of those pieces really needs to be embedded in a lot of the programs and things that we do," she said.
In the longer term, Kinney wants to see a purpose-built facility with a homeless shelter, boarding rooms, supported living apartments and social services all in one place for people to transition from one to the next.
"There could be social enterprise and the community has an opportunity to interact with a lot of those clients on a more positive note," Kinney said. "Maybe I'm an idealist, but I just think that the potential is endless."