Published May 26, 2024

Barrie mayor touts downtown safety, protesters call it 'public relations talk'

Dogged by a group of protesters during a downtown news conference last Thursday, Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall repeated measures the city has taken to improve safety in the core, to aid the vulnerable in the community and what work still needs to be done.

The protesters held signs that said "stop criminalizing poverty" and "this encampment is protected by the charter of rights and freedoms."

Nuttall was joined at the news conference by Barrie Police Chief Rich Johnston and other city officials including Craig Stevens, head of the Downtown Barrie BIA and representatives from the County of Simcoe, which is responsible for delivery of social services including the shelter system.

The mayor vowed to crack down on illegal drug dispensaries, of which there are several stores selling so-called magic mushrooms.

"The illegal drug dealing in our downtown is unacceptable. It's not a thing that I think our society or our community supports. Unfortunately, over the past five or six years, the illegal drug dealing outlets have opened in our downtown to little to no opposition, and that's going to change."

There is already a stepped-up police presence downtown, not just in cruisers, but walking the walk, even bicycling, and there will be more of that.

Barrie police bicycle patrol attends a news conference on Thursday, May 23, 2024, by Mayor Alex Nuttall to talk about downtown safety/Photo - Barrie 360

"Our guiding principle as an organization from the Barrie Police Service is that every single person should feel safe in their surroundings, no matter where you are and what your housing circumstances are," said Police Chief Rich Johnston. "Our role is to ensure that everyone is able to enjoy our downtown and to do so without concern for their safety, and concern for stepping on something that would cause them great harm."

Protesters gather at a news conference held by Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall to talk about downtown safety on Thursday, May 23, 2024/Photo - Barrie 360

Christine Nayler, co-founder of Ryan's Hope, a non-profit that provides meals to those experiencing addiction, mental health challenges and homelessness, was among the demonstrators. She said what she heard at the news conference was a lot of "public relations talk."

"It doesn't mean anything helpful for our friends who are living in poverty, that are unsheltered in our community. Our most vulnerable members are going to continue to be targeted. It sounds like they're stepping up the targeting of our unsheltered population."

Nayler claims the increased police presence downtown is not making those who are vulnerable feel safer.

"It's not making our friends that are unsheltered and living with mental illness and substance abuse feel safer. They say they are being targeted and they are being bullied."

The mayor said rather than a silo approach, there will be communication among all sectors.

"It's part of a very broad plan that aims to help those who need it and to keep it (downtown) safe for those who are using it."

After the news conference, Nuttall was asked by Barrie 360 if he had a message for the demonstrators.

"I think it's pretty important when we're talking about these issues to talk about what we've done," he said. "We've increased funding by $1.65 million, we've lobbied the provincial government to increase funding and they dropped in about $10.5 million to homeless prevention. The compassion and the hope that we're trying to offer in the city for those who are experiencing difficulties is there. The resources are being put behind it, and as we move forward, we need to make sure that we're both helping those that are in need as well as keeping a safe and secure community for folks in our city to be able to enjoy."

Some of the $1.65 million the city approved last spring has been invested in a warming and cooling centre for vulnerable residents, family reunification services, enhanced breakfast and meal programs, as well as a pilot shuttle program to end the release and drop off of prisoners who leave the Central North Correctional Centre (CNC) and are left at the Barrie bus terminal.

"That has been a huge success to date," Nuttall said, referencing the CNC transfer. "Over 230 individuals in our first six months have chosen to get closer to home and not be stuck on the side of a road in a city they don't know, which is Barrie."

At the news conference, Mina Fayez-Bahgat, general manager of social and community services for the County of Simcoe highlighted a number of programs undertaken to address homelessness in Barrie including a rapid rehousing initiative that focuses on housing outcomes and allows people to participate in a 120-day housing-based program.

"The first of its kind was launched last year in the City of Barrie and had an 88 per cent success rate of permanent housing outcomes."

Another group trying to keep a roof over their heads are owners of downtown businesses.

"The Downtown Barrie Business Improvement Area (BIA ) represents over 300 local businesses and over 200 local property owners," Craig Stevens, BIA executive director, told the news conference. "I emphasize that the BIA is local, and they are friends, family and are neighbours. Having a vibrant and exciting downtown is so important."

The mayor said there is a unified approach going forward.

"The message to be received today is that our social services, our police department, our city and our BIA are going to walk hand in hand to help individuals who need help and to ensure we have a safe, vibrant and thriving downtown going forward."

Banner image: Protesters gathered as Barrie Mayor Alex Nuttall held a news conference on Thursday, May 23, 2024 to talk about downtown safety/Photo - Barrie 360

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