Residents under siege as province invests millions into Cobourg’s low-barrier shelter

Millions of dollars have been committed to Cobourg’s latest low-barrier shelter, which those leading the charge 'hope' will address burgeoning homelessness in the area, as residents under siege merely hope for a restoration of public safety.

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The escalating situation in Cobourg, Ontario has residents and businesses, especially in the downtown core, grappling with surges in violence, crime, and public safety threats due to increased vagrancy, open-air drug use, and encampments.

After Rebel News’ January investigation into Cobourg's crime crisis, ongoing issues with shelter services remain. Cobourg’s upper-tier municipality called Northumberland County – which is in charge of homelessness and shelter services – recently acquired the former nursing home at 310 Division Street for $2.3 million and has just received an additional $2.5 million from the province for renovations. Oddly, the surge in homelessness coincides with the province doubling funding for homelessness prevention less than a year ago.

The location of 310 Division Street, just a block from an elementary school and in the heart of a residential neighbourhood, has sparked concerns due to historically poor management by Transition House under its low-barrier designationAs a registered charity, it is said to have received a sole-sourced contract for 310 Division Street, despite incidents of staff attacks and property damage in previous years.

During the contract and sale process with Northumberland County, Reverend Neil Ellis of St. Andrews Church transitioned from his role as board chair and executive director at Transition House to Northumberland County’s housing services manager, raising concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Interestingly, Ellis also has prior financial advising experience, having specialized in investments and mortgages. 

New Executive Director Ike Nwibe has assumed leadership of Transition House in recent months. He previously served as a senior manager at Fred Victor, a Toronto-based charity receiving three-quarters of its nearly $50 million revenue from government grants, similar to Transition House which relies predominantly on taxpayer-funded contributions.

With increasing safety concerns and a lack of communication, Cobourg has introduced a new emergency care establishment licensing bylaw set to take effect on March 28. The bylaw imposes stipulations on shelter spaces, including maintenance requirements, codes of conduct for occupants, and personal liability for shelter directors should anyone be found to be in contravention of various Town of Cobourg bylaws.

Associate Director for Housing and Homelessness Rebecca Carmen, who ironically made $105,000 in 2022, expressed concern over this bylaw and its potential to hinder and prevent shelter operations. Nwibe conveyed apprehension around board liability and said that he wants to see Northumberland County as a “housing first leader.”

Residents, including local business owner James Bisson, have voiced concerns at county meetings about the resultant rising crime rates and the impact low-barrier shelters and warming hubs are having on law-abiding, taxpaying citizens.

Bisson rightfully points out that Cornerstone Family Violence Prevention Centre, located one block south of Transition House, has turned away over 100 at-risk women and children due to lack of space in recent years. Surprisingly, there has been no discussion about expanding their capacity even though they operate at a consistently higher average occupancy rate than Transition House.

With the county moving forward with Transition House acquiring 310 Division Street, concerns continue with funding priorities. Deputy Warden Mandy Martin and others have welcomed the province's funding as "Santa Claus coming to town," prompting further scrutiny over fiscal responsibility.

The most recent county council meeting was moved into back-door discussions on its own bylaw, likely in response to Cobourg's, with plans to produce a full public report at the next meeting on March 20.

A lot of hopes and intentions have been shared by those involved in proceeding with the multi-million dollar 310 Division Street project, while the community described as being “under siege” simply hopes for a restoration of public safety.

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