LISTOWEL – After a fire behind Erie Meats was successfully contained and extinguished, resulting in only a few burnt trees, nearby residents are expressing concern over safety – and it isn’t the first time.
On July 11, at approximately 8 a.m. the North Perth Fire Department responded to a bush fire in the area near an unofficial homeless encampment that was known by many in the area. In a previous interview with the Listowel Banner, Fire Chief Janny Pape said that the fire was started at “a small encampment,” but did not indicate if it was related to the homeless encampment.
“It’s just beyond this forest that you see here,” nearby resident Hoj MacDonald pointed. He was indicating toward a wall of trees just across from his house, where he has resided the last three years.
“My kids play directly in this forest because up until now there’s never been any ‘No Trespassing’ signs. There’s paths and stuff that run all through there, so it gives you the feeling, especially in a small country town like this, that you can go trump off in the bushes. That’s what I did when I was a kid. And that’s what I prefer my kids do rather than sitting on video games.”
When MacDonald moved in, he did not know about the encampment but quickly came to know it after traversing the many pathways that crisscross the greenspace. The encampment was a safety concern as a father and as a resident before the fire. He said that there have been numerous thefts and he believes they are caused by many of the unsheltered that reside near his street. He was concerned his girlfriend could not walk to her work five minutes away. Now, after the fire, he is more than concerned. He is upset with the municipal response to the nearby unsheltered – and the fire that seems like the culmination of a lack of action.
“They could have prevented this. They knew the camps are in there,” said MacDonald.
Another resident, who did not want to be named out of fear of reprisals, said that there have been many break-ins and thefts in the area; that includes car break-ins and house break-ins.
OPP Media Officer Kim Lyon said that no person of interest has been identified in regard to the fire. In regard to the recent sign postings put up around the area, Lyon confirmed that there will be consequences to trespassing in the future and the idea that the OPP are turning a blind eye to the homeless population in the area is just not true. She indicated that there haven’t been a higher-than-normal number of reports in the area, though said that might be because these crimes are not being reported.
Although before the fire a sizable and semi-permanent encampment was in the area, the area is now empty.
The town’s response moving forward
North Perth Mayor Todd Kasenberg responded to past concerns and whether or not encampments like that will continue in the future, saying that it is a complicated issue.
“With regards to municipal lands along the trail, I would say that municipal governments have some obligation to recognize that having a home is a right,” he said. “It’s recognized by the United Nations. The challenge for municipal governments, ours included, is to ensure that we have solutions for housing for all. And the problem that we face, of course, is the issue of the unsheltered homeless, right?
“Can we be unequivocal and saying that we’re going to force them off or prevent trespassing on public lands? I don’t think we can ever be so unequivocal. Some may escape our detection and our connection with social services and other supports that will assist (but) I won’t be so unequivocal in saying it won’t happen again there or anywhere because I think that is possible. It will happen again.”
He also said that in collaboration with many agencies across North Perth and Perth County, they have been working hard to address the larger issue driving the need for encampments.
“The municipality has done a lot of work and it’s been a hallmark of this council’s term of office to work on housing and homelessness. You know, homelessness has been with us for some time but there wasn’t, in retrospect, probably a coherent policy and a coherent set of practices. That’s what we’ve worked on, both as a council and as our delegates, the staff and other agencies that interact with the issue. Most recently … staff nucleated a number of different partners, both within the organization and outside of the corporation, to begin having multiple agency meetings, to address homelessness in our community.
“We have a lot of action happening at the staff level and with the agencies all talking to each other, which is important. We’re preparing some plans, working with a philosophy that begins first with housing as a right, and respecting the dignity of all and working through possible interventions.
“Homelessness, we can see it in even neighbouring larger centers, brings with it a number of tensions, and those tensions include respecting that housing is a fundamental right … The other side of that tension is the neighbourhood response, the way that the rest of the community interacts with the problem. Most of us, I think it’s fair to say, would prefer to not have to face the realities of some of us. You know, I get it; it breaks my heart to know that there are individuals in our community who are unsheltered and that has motivated my work, and the rest of council’s work on this file, and continues to motivate our staff and interagency group. Our challenge is very real. We’re trying to create a balance between those tensions.
“Our challenge for the neighbours is really balancing their discomfort against essential human rights and needs. I get that it can be pretty unsettling to see visible homelessness. But it’s only when there are safety risks that we should intervene. Having people feel uncomfortable about what they’re seeing may not be a legitimate reason to chase people or move people along out of the areas that they’ve chosen to camp.
“I deal with a number of concerned citizens who have expressed worry, and they’re not wrong. That’s a real issue. Our fire chief obviously is continuing to be concerned about safety and fire safety in particular. It’s something that we absolutely are keeping our eyes on, especially in light of the circumstances – the dryness that we’ve experienced. The community needs to realize that all efforts are being made to find solutions for individuals that are in our network of awareness, who are living rough at this point. We will continue to work as a team and continue to consider the inputs of the community about how to address this both practically and in policy. It’s a very tricky scenario and one that should concern us all.”
In regard to the fire, Kasenberg said that it is important that the rumour mill doesn’t get out of hand.
“The first piece is, I have not heard conclusively how this fire started. There’s a lot of speculation that may or may not be correct, and people should be mindful that they may not have all the facts. There’s an investigation and appropriate conclusions will be reached.”
Connor Luczka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner