'Terrorizing downtown': East grills Guesthouse CEO on vagrancy

For all the beauty of the renovated Midland downtown with its beautiful streets and artwork, it cannot overlook those less fortunate who shelter in the nooks and crannies which they would never call home.

The Guesthouse Shelter at 522 Elizabeth St. hosts 18 beds for emergency overnight stay as a registered charity, helping in the battle against homelessness and to support residents in an effort to better their lives.

Guesthouse CEO Nathan Sykes addressed the issue during the recent committee of the whole meeting where, prompted from an earlier meeting with Mayor Bill Gordon and town staff, Sykes provided a deputation to share the challenges faced with an overcrowded system and the impact of the pandemic.

“County-wide enumerations consistently show that North Simcoe has the second-highest rate of homelessness in the entire county,” Sykes noted, “and our last count showed that there were over 135 people in North Simcoe, and those numbers just keep climbing.”

Council thanked Sykes for the deputation with some light questions asked to clarify the role of the municipality and the county in the fight against homelessness and poverty.

However, Coun. Sheldon East addressed the more direct issue of nuisances in the community through anecdotes of public exposure and overall indecency, which he attributed to Guesthouse Shelter patrons.

“I appreciate your speech, but I’m not picking up what you’re putting down about safety,” East began. “I spoke with a couple of people that tried to stay with you, and in regards to feeling safe there was no safety. It was indicated to me that your units are run by drug dealers so they’re scared to go there. I can’t imagine a family of kids ever going there and feeling safe knowing this.

“My family was going to the library, and one of your residents whipped out his thing to take a pee in front of them. The same thing happened to my mother-in-law. These aren’t stories that I’m fabricating.”

East continued to berate Sykes uninterrupted as other members of council looked to committee chair Deputy Mayor Jack Contin for moderation; Sykes occasionally had time to deny the accusations. At times, Contin readied to step in, but fell back as East chased after Sykes for accountability during a six-minute barrage.

“I think that you really have to stand up and hold yourself accountable for their actions in Midland,” said East to Sykes. “Essentially what you’re doing is… you’re terrorizing downtown Midland.”

Sykes firmly countered, “These are residents of Midland. So, that they receive services from the Guesthouse is one thing but they also receive services from many other places. To hold the Guesthouse solely responsible for their behaviour, I think, is an irresponsible statement to make.”

Mayor Bill Gordon stepped in finally claiming Contin was having microphone issues, only for Contin to immediately speak into the microphone and thank Sykes for the deputation.

Gordon added another ten minutes in reiterating his appearance at the recent Simcoe County council meeting which looked to financial support for regional shelters, along with Sykes explaining the difficulty in securing more beds for the Elizabeth St. location through a Midland BIA -led 2014 OMB decision which limited residential units to upper floors of downtown Midland businesses.

Although there was no request from Sykes through the deputation, Gordon made a public commitment to work on supporting the Guesthouse in becoming open during the day.

“Which doesn’t solve homelessness,” Gordon explained, “but it does mean that all the people that are automatically displaced in the morning will have an option to at least use a washroom or come in and avail themselves of programming. Some of them might choose not to and they might hang out anyway, and they’ll be exactly where we see them now; but not all of them will by default.”

During his earlier deputation, Sykes noted homelessness can happen as a result of multiple reasons: Structural factors, systemic failure, and individual circumstances which, over time, “eventually overwhelm people.”

“In 2012, Midland Out of the Cold became the Guesthouse Shelter, and in 2014 we purchased 522 Elizabeth Street as North Simcoe’s permanent emergency shelter. We celebrated the opening in 2017 with 18 emergency beds and a commercial kitchen that allowed us to cook for our guests and also provide community meals for those in need.

“In 2017, we had around 100 guests spend at least one night with us in shelter and served around 13,000 meals; by 2022, that number had doubled to over 200 people who stayed with us, and we served 35,000 meals. So the need just keeps growing,” Sykes added.

The shelter offers numerous day services to help residents transition into better circumstances, but Sykes shared to council that just one staff member is on hand for the role, which isn’t suited to hosting further accommodations for guests in the daytime.

Information about the Guesthouse Shelter and its services, including ways to volunteer, are available on its website.

Council meetings are held every third Wednesday, and can be attended virtually through Zoom by contacting the clerk’s department of Midland town hall for a link to the meeting.

Council meetings can also be viewed on Rogers TV cable channel 53, or through the livestream on the Rogers TV website. Archives of council meetings are available through Rogers TV and on the Town of Midland’s YouTube channel.

Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, MidlandToday.ca