By Fakiha Baig
with files from Barrie 360
Advocates for the homeless plan a silent protest at Barrie City Hall on Wednesday evening to protest proposed by-law changes that advocates feel are an attack on those experiencing homelessness in the community.
The changes, according to the city, would ban the distribution of food and grocery items in public spaces, and prohibit the use and distribution of tents or tarps on public land, including parks.
“City property includes parks, open spaces, urban squares, sports fields, parking lots, vacant or other lands owned or managed by the City of Barrie. It also includes a highway, roadway, sidewalk, pedestrian way, boulevard, or watercourse,” the city said in a media release on Tuesday.
The vote on the proposed by-law changes is part of a motion approved unanimously by council last month directing staff to investigate and take action on several initiatives aimed at addressing what it called the “chronic homeless situation” in Barrie.
“Organizations would be able to continue their food outreach programs on their own property or any property in the community not owned by the city where permission for such distribution to occur has been granted,” the city added in the statement.
The city noted that current by-laws already prohibit individuals or corporations from distributing food and supplies on city property but allow charitable organizations to do so.
“The change is to extend the prohibition to all organizations,” it wrote. Penalties will be applied if the new rules, if passed, are not followed.
Federal housing advocate Marie-Josée Houle called on Barrie’s council and mayor to vote against those amendments, saying they would create new barriers for vulnerable homeless people.
“These measures would severely restrict access to basic shelter and food for people living in local homeless encampments and, as such, are in direct contravention of international human rights standards,” she wrote in a letter, a copy of which was also sent to Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Houle, who was appointed by the federal government in February 2022 to lead the newly formed Office of the Federal Housing Advocate, said Barrie’s councillors need to meaningfully engage with homeless individuals, community organizations and stakeholders before making decisions that affect them.
She recognized the motion also aimed to address the homelessness crisis by ordering council to appeal for funds from the provincial government to establish “cooling and warming centres as well as the provision of central food distribution away from public parks and other public spaces.”
“However, the lack of adequate indoor shelter spaces in the city could result in a dangerous displacement of your most marginalized residents,” she wrote.
Barrie is obligated “to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of encampment residents,” Houle wrote.
The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness was similarly concerned about the proposed by-laws in Barrie.
“This by-law is a clear-cut violation of basic human rights and a shocking criminalization of people experiencing homelessness,” Tim Richter, the organization’s CEO, wrote in a statement.
“This is an assault on basic human decency, it hurts people who are already suffering and will make the life-threatening experience of homelessness that much more dangerous.”
The proposed by-law changes would shut down a street outreach operated by Ryan’s Hope, according to Christine Nayler.
She and her husband head up the organization which was created in memory of their son Ryan who battled mental illness and died from toxic drug poisoning in 2020.
Nayler says they would have to stop their five-day-a-week street outreach where they provide food and other supplies to those experiencing homelessness.
“We’re meeting people where they are at,” she says. “They are already living in survival mode, and now you are taking away the very few supports that they have.”
Anyone who violates the by-law could be fined a maximum of $5,000 upon conviction, and that rises to $100,000 for a corporation.
Nayler says Ryan’s Hope is a corporation, and she says they don’t have that kind of money to challenge the by-laws.
A spokesperson for Steve Clark, Ontario’s minister of municipal affairs and housing, said Wednesday that Simcoe County, which Barrie is a part of, received more than $21 million this fiscal year to tackle homelessness, up from the over $9.7 million it got last year.
“We will continue to support our municipal and service manager partners as they work to connect vulnerable Ontarians with the supports they need in an environment that is safe and appropriate for both them and the wider community,” Victoria Podbielski wrote in a statement.
Simcoe County is responsible for the shelter system in the region including the cities of Barrie and Orillia.
Houle, the federal housing advocate, launched a review of homeless encampments in Canada earlier this year, calling the situation a human rights crisis fuelled in part by the failure of all levels of government to provide adequate housing.
In December, the Ontario Human Rights Commission said ongoing consultations have revealed that desperate situations – including a lack of affordable housing, economic inequality and gaps in mental health and addiction care – are leading to people living in encampments.
It urged that solutions to homelessness and encampments be grounded in human rights-based approaches, delivered with respect and compassion.
National Right to Housing Network director Michèle Biss said there will be strong pushback if the bylaw passes and Barrie will hear from advocates across the country.
“This is such a tremendous violation of human dignity and human decency. It is an extremely destructive bylaw that really has to be stopped,” Biss said in an interview.
Pat Bristow, founder of Helping Hands for the Homeless Barrie, said that if the motion passes her organization will have to change the way it distributes care packages in city encampments.
“We will be continuing to help, just in possibly different ways than we presently are,” she said in a statement.
Opponents of the proposed by-law changes are expected to gather outside city hall for a silent protest on Wednesday evening, an hour before council’s 7:30 p.m. meeting.
Barrie 360 reached out to Mayor Alex Nuttall on Tuesday for comment but was told he was unavailable.
However, the city did issue a news release called “Understanding Bill 067 & 068.”
The city provided these answers:
Do the proposed by-law amendments prohibit agencies, non-profit organizations, or individuals from distributing food, water, tents, etc. within the community?
No, agencies, non-profit organizations or individuals would continue to be able to distribute from their own properties or property other than city-owned property. The amendments, if adopted, would only apply to distribution occurring on city-owned property.
What is City property?
City Property includes parks, open spaces, urban squares, sports fields, parking lots, vacant or other lands owned or managed by the City of Barrie. It also includes a highway, roadway,
sidewalk, pedestrian way, boulevard, or watercourse.
How does this impact local service agencies that distribute food and supplies?
The by-law provisions only apply to distributing from city property. Organizations would be able to continue their food outreach programs on their own property or any property in the
community not owned by the city where permission for such distribution to occur has been
Should the amendments to the city’s by-laws be passed, the agencies that the city is aware of that use city property will be advised of the changes to the by-laws and that distributing food or supplies will no longer be permitted on or from city property.
Can I have a picnic in the park with friends and share food?
Picnics in the park or other gatherings with friends or family where food is shared would
continue to be allowed. The by-law amendments would apply to organized food or supplies
distribution, not a picnic.
How will the by-law amendments, if adopted, be enforced?
As always, Municipal Law Enforcement’s approach will be to educate individuals and
organizations about the by-law provisions and seek voluntary compliance. As is the case with most by-laws, penalties may be applied if individuals do not voluntarily comply
Will the public have the opportunity to provide feedback on the changes implemented?
A Public Meeting of the Community Safety Committee to review actions taken to date has been scheduled for Tuesday September 19, 2023.
Can you sleep in a tent at a public park or on other city property?
You are not permitted to set up camp or to sleep overnight on city property under the city’s
Are the restrictions on distributing food and supplies on city property new?
No, the current by-law prohibits individuals or corporations from distributing food and supplies on city property but does allow charitable organizations to do so. The change is to extend the prohibition to all organizations.
I want to help unhoused people in Barrie, how can I best do that?
Consider, donating your money or time to local service agencies that provide support.
Barrie 360 reported on the motion that was passed by city council on May 17. The complete motion follows:
1. That the Chief Administrative Officer consider/utilize the following options to address chronic homelessness and enhance public safety in the City of Barrie:
a) Request Funding from the Province of Ontario for:
- additional financial support for the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine (RAAM) Clinic to provide more beds an to increase the hours of operation; and
- for a similar organization that provides long-term counselling and treatment.
b) Approve funding for the following:
- a Family Re-unification Fund to pay for the transportation costs and help re-unite individuals with families or support groups.
- the operation of a shuttle service for individuals released from the Central North Correctional Centre;
- a Cooling and Warming Centre for at-risk individuals and the provision of daily meal programs that are currently being offered on public lands and in public parks over multiple years;
- to the Salvation Army or a similar organization to support a lunch program; and
- for food security programs through local agencies to reduce the needs associated with panhandling.
c) Request permanent funding from the Province of Ontario and the County of Simcoe for the County of Simcoe’s mobile outreach pilot program in downtown Barrie, if deemed to be successful by the City of Barrie and the County of Simcoe.
d) Changes to the City’s By-laws, protocols, and processes to:
- prohibit the use or distribution of tents or tarps in public parks or on public lands without a permit;
- prohibit the distribution of food and grocery products in public spaces without the use of a permit; and
- reduce the time required to address camping in parks and storage of goods in parks or public spaces.
e) Methods to prohibit the payment to panhandlers on City Streets, intersections, and highway ramps.
f) The placement of signs on City off-ramps to discourage panhandling or financial support thereof and encouraging donations to local social service agencies.
g) Work with the County of Simcoe and Province of Ontario on ways to build more supportive housing for community members experiencing adverse mental health or addictions.
h) Appeal to the County of Simcoe for funding to help individuals transition from unemployment to employment through training opportunities.
i) Schedule a public meeting to be held at the Community Safety Committee regarding the chronic homelessness, addictions and mental health supports in the City of Barrie.
j) Have staff apply for any provincial or federal funding opportunities available to support the options outlined this motion.
2. That funding of up to $825,000 per annum for 2 years from the Re-Investment Reserve be made available to fund any of the options detailed in paragraph 1 that are undertaken, as required.
3. That, if necessary, the Chief Administrative Officer be authorized to waive the City’s purchasing by-law to award any items or services required to undertake the options listed in paragraph 1.
4. That the Chief Administrative Officer provide quarterly updates to the Community Safety Committee regarding the effectiveness of the options that are undertaken as part of this motion.
Banner image: Christine Nayler of Ryan’s Hope and supporters have been camped in tents outside Barrie City Hall since Monday to protest proposed by-law changes that will come up for a vote at council on Wednesday/ Barrie 360 photo