Community safety concerns mount as Cobourg becomes the epicentre for a low-barrier shelter

Cobourg's low-barrier shelter raises concerns as Transition House faces criticism and community urges active engagement for resolution.

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Cobourg’s proposed low-barrier shelter, set in a former nursing home, raises community concerns as it will be managed by a registered charity facing criticism for poorly run shelter services. Safety, appropriateness and the low-barrier designation prompt ongoing community worry.

Northumberland County, which serves as an upper-tier municipality, has acquired an old nursing home at 310 Division Street in Cobourg, Ontario for 2.3 million dollars in an attempt to quell the housing, homelessness and drug crisis faced by the town.

Located just one block away from an elementary school, the building will be sold back to the existing emergency shelter called Transition House, which will relocate into the 35-bed facility.

Transition House is a registered charity said to have a monopoly on shelter services within the sprawling rural county – spanning 1900 square kilometres with a population of almost 90,000.

It’s further claimed that their existing 18-bed shelter space and control of the adjacent warming room in a local church basement are poorly run, with services inadequately delivered.

Many are concerned for the safety of the neighbouring community but also left wondering: will this be a similar situation to what just occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where those living in tents chose to continue staying in an encampment situation and shun a new 3 million dollar shelter facility?

And what role does Canada being the second most drug addicted country in the world play in the burgeoning issue of homelessness – a problem no longer reserved for urban areas and is now sprawling out to rural communities like Cobourg.

While residents interviewed believe that everyone should have a place to live and empathize that providing that space is not an easy decision, many express that this particular building is not an ideal location for a low-barrier shelter and question Transition’s House ability to manage it.

“It’s right next to businesses,” says one resident. “You have to get the drugs off of the streets because most of them are crackheads. I saw it when I drove a cab here, it’s just pathetic. The cops don’t do anything.”

“I’m concerned that because of the issues we've had with Transition House around the corner,” expressed one resident, “which has been troublesome, there are a lot of people hanging around – the zombies – and we're concerned that on the way into our beautiful downtown beach and our downtown heritage section, that there would be people here that would might discourage people from coming into our town.”

The building also has substantial issues, including a bad, roof, and an HVAC system that needs to be upgraded. “There’s a lot of money that’s going to be required that’s going to come out of our tax dollars,” says the resident.

Jordan Stevenson, CEO of Build X Community and The Buddy Bus initiative, expressed concern over the monopoly that Transition House has on shelter and housing services in the county. He tried to fill a need for safe overnight sleeping space but has repeatedly hit road blocks and red tape preventing him from providing outreach services in a meaningful way.

“You have a service monopoly where one agency is providing all the services in in the county,” Stevenson explains.

“If somebody has an issue with that agency, they are then banned from any service provision. And it's arbitrary. There's no there's no external oversight. There are no appeal boards or anything like that. It's up to the managers at the time. And if the manager doesn't like you, then sorry, you're out of luck. No more services for you and everybody gets put in a standstill and we've seen that recently where somebody got on the manager's bad side because they reported an impropriety and boom, sorry, you're out on the streets, in -17 and that's just not okay.”

Local business owner, resident and CEO of the website James Bisson says that the purchase of 310 Division was excellent in regards to addressing homeless issues, it’s the purpose and the low-barrier designation that he has concerns with.

“It's the purpose of 310 Division and how it's going to play itself out that I have an issue with. So to allocate that as a low-barrier shelter facility when we already have a low low-barrier shelter through Transition House… and for the last four or five years, we've seen the impact of [that].”

“Without a plan, it's created chaos and wreak havoc. There's lawlessness going on and all sorts of social and business issues happening now. That property is a gem. It has 40-plus rooms in it that were designed for self-contained individuals. We have a ten-year waiting list for individuals waiting for subsidized housing or to be placed in affordability housing. We could lower that waiting list with just that one purchase alone. But to allocate that to a broken methodology, it makes no sense to me whatsoever, especially when we’re talking [needing renovations], that's a huge investment of resources in a situation that has no guarantees.”

Overall the sentiment was for community members to get engaged and actively participate in the process as it unfolds to ensure a beneficial resolution for the present and future of the community.

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