Panhandling on Highway 400 ramps, and encampments near the highway have been front and centre around a discussion about the social challenges the City of Barrie is facing, such as mental health, addiction, affordable housing and homelessness.
Last Monday, city council approved an eight-point plan to try and tackle these issues.
One recommendation was that correspondence is sent to Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) requesting them to connect with outreach workers in Barrie to follow up with the needs of citizens staying within encampments along the Highway 400 ramps in order to address safety concerns as they arise and that a compassionate approach be taken in supporting people in these areas.
Provincial police say they do get quite a few public complaints from motorists concerned about pedestrians on or near the highway who are panhandling, but OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt says they are not looking at ticketing their way out of these situations.
“We are aware that there are several areas that are occupied by people that are either panhandling or just walking around near the highway, which is a dangerous situation for everybody,” he says. “We’re not looking at going in, evicting, and pulling down their encampments because at this point we want to find solutions that work.”
Schmidt says it isn’t like the police haven’t had contact with many of these individuals already.
“We had many connections and contacts, and some people are quite adamant that that’s where they want to be and spend their time, and we’re working with them,” he notes. “Obviously, if there are dangers and hazards, we will work with our safety partners, public health and social workers to come up with fair solutions for everybody.”
“If we ask a pedestrian who is on the highway to exit and they refuse to comply, they could be arrested and taken off the highway,” Schmidt explains. “But we’re not looking at ticketing our way out of these situations. We need to find solutions that are equitable for everybody, and we’re working on those solutions right now.”
At Monday’s city council meeting on June 6, Mayor Jeff Lehman warned that the bigger picture that needs to be addressed is more than just the housing crisis, which he said was the underlying issue.
“But the lack of support for the reasons why people are experiencing homelessness in the first place, and that is poverty, mental health and addictions, and in some cases past trauma and physical trauma,” he said. “Until we have the services available in our community to support the reasons why people become homeless, it won’t just be enough to get a roof over people’s heads.”