Action needed at Rainbow Park encampment: Sarnia council

Rainbow Park has Sarnia city council’s attention.

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The riverfront park is the site of a growing tent encampment, said neighbor Kim Gawdunyk, who Monday urged council to take notice, given the potential for disease and violence amid human waste and drug paraphernalia.

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“Having a tent encampment in a park where children play and could be put at risk should never be tolerated,” he said. “All this does is create tension with homeowners, neighbors and the displaced.

“It makes it hard for citizens to keep having empathy for these individuals.”

Sarnia council last fall considered and rejected —amid concerns about violence, fires, police enforcement and other issues — sanctioning a tent encampment somewhere in the city for the 10 to 15 people who, County of Lambton officials said at the time, were experiencing homelessness and either refusing to enter the shelter system or couldn’t t because of restrictions.

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There is adequate room in the Lambton County shelter system for all people experiencing homelessness, county social services general manager Valerie Colasanti has said.

In January, there were 313 people identified as experiencing homelessness, including in shelters, transitional housing, and living unsheltered in the community, county officials have reported.

Monday, council stopped short of immediately voting for the Rainbow Park encampment to be removed — Couns. George Vandenberg and Bill Dennis voted for immediate action, but Vandenberg’s motion was defeated — amid warnings from city CAO Chris Carter and solicitor Randi Kalar about potential legal repercussions, as cases on the issue continue in other communities.

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“I do want to also caution at the strong likelihood that the city is met with litigation if we removed all of the encampments immediately,” Kalar said.

Instead, council 5-2 — Couns. Terry Burrell and Chrissy McRoberts were opposed — passed a motion to “clean up” Rainbow Park, and for legal and social services opinions to be sought on potentially removing the encampment before council’s next meeting May 6.

Coun. Anne Marie Gillis, who made the motion, clarified cleaning up refers to things like human waste and garbage; but leaving the tents, for now.

“Council was very firm they wanted to get something started as a response to the concern of the people that live in the area,” she said.

“And I’m hoping that council will make the right call (May 6).”

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Sarnia council 6-3 in February rejected a motion from Coun. Bill Dennis to remove all encampments in the city. Burrell and Coun. Dave Boushy voted with Dennis at the time in the losing cause.

Mayor Mike Bradley at the time noted county officials respond when there are complaints and meet with people living in parks to try to address the issues.

“I can tell you they’ve been very good at going out and talking,” Bradley said in February.

“They know all the people and there are some that are really extremely difficult to deal with.”

There have been tents in Veterans ParkAvondale Park and elsewhere, he said.

Bradley and Coun. Adam Kilner were absent from Monday’s meeting.

McRoberts chaired the meeting in Bradley’s absence.

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Removing people from one location doesn’t solve the issue of people living outside, McRoberts said.

“When these folks are moved, they’re now going to have to find a new place to go,” she said.

Dennis, meanwhile, called the motion to remove the encampment — the vote that failed — the “take back our city motion.”

It should not be legal for people to defecate in a public park, he said, while also warning about the potential for violence.

“We’ve got to make Sarnia great again,” he said. “Yes I said that. We’ve got to make Sarnia great again.”

Based on staff advice, council needs more information before it acts, Burrell said.

“This is important to do, but I think we have to do it right or we’re going to be in a greater pickle than we’re in now,” he said.

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Coun. Brian White has previously pointed to other communities with unsanctioned encampments, noting they sometimes also provide more garbage cans and portable toilets.

There are reasons why some people don’t feel safe in shelters, he said in February.

“So just out of an element of compassion, I still believe we can follow the lead of other municipalities,” he said at the time.

There was no discussion about that idea Monday, though White did recommend discussion on Rainbow Park be referred to the county Community Safety and Well-Being Table.

The table includes service providers, public health and county officials “trying to dig into these issues and create evidence-based solutions,” he said.

Gawdunyk said he knows there are no simple answers and that he doesn’t envy council having to deal with the local effects of a national emergency.

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“I am asking for consultation, discussion and problem-solving, and serious review of the use of a south-end park for a mediocre, unhealthy living solution for these people who need our help, (but) not at the expense of our citizens and their safety,” he said.

Council unanimously Monday voted to suspend the rules of order to allow Gawdunyk to speak

He had previously been denied the opportunity to speak because of a council procedure by law provision, that delegations may be rejected if council has already dealt with the issue in the term, like the vote in February, deputy clerk Denny Giles said.

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