City bumps Homelessness and Housing Committee meeting, citing lack of urgent business

The entrance to Belle Park on Montreal St. has served as a City-sanctioned, temporary homeless encampment since early April. Photo Jun. 23, 2020.

Members of the City’s Homelessness and Housing Advisory Committee (HHAC) are at a loss following the postponement of their June meeting to Jul. 8, 2020, one day after the eviction date for Belle Park’s residents.

“After consultation with the Chair, it has been determined that the June 11 meeting of the Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee will be cancelled due to lack of time-sensitive business,” said an email from committee Clerk Derek Ochej on Monday, May 25.

Committee member Melodie Ballard said she found the cancellation perplexing. “There are tent cities in Kingston under threat of eviction by the City, with no clear plan on where they’ll go,” she said. “Seems like exactly the kind of thing we should be reviewing and discussing.”

At the time of the committee Clerk’s email, residents of the homeless camp at Belle Park were facing an imminent deadline to relocate on Friday, Jun. 5. On Jun. 2, the City extended the eviction date by one month. Occupants must now vacate Belle Park by Tuesday, Jul. 7.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic restricts the operation and fundraising efforts for the local non-profit organizations that support Kingston’s homeless population. “If these current circumstances don’t qualify for urgent business for the committee to discuss,” Ballard asked, “what does?”

Ballard, along with her HHAC co-members Jacqueline Collier and Councillor Bridget Doherty, continued to push Ochej and committee Chair Peter Clarke for clarity. On Jun. 1, Clarke responded.

“In a recent conversation I had with Ruth Noordegraf, the Director of Housing & Social Services, she indicated that the City’s approaches to housing and homelessness will need to be rethought, and hoped the HHAC would be able to provide feedback on these changes,” he said. He indicated that Noordegraf had expressed interest in a virtual meeting at some point in July.

“The committee’s role is to provide advice to Council regarding City policies and strategies regarding homelessness issues, but not to provide commentary on specific instances or scenarios, or to advocate directly for a specific position,” Clarke wrote. “While the current situation is troubling to many, it is not a policy issue that falls within our mandate.”

Councillor Bridget Doherty replied with a suggestion that the HHAC should still meet and have “some fruitful discussions around the table.”

Ochej replied that City staff had not prepared a report for the HHAC to consider, and without it, there was no agenda. “From a procedural aspect, the committee can only meet for business when there are reports to be considered,” he explained in a subsequent email to Ballard. “In this case, there were no outstanding reports.”

Councillor suggests revising the role of the HHAC

As someone with lived-experience of homelessness in Kingston, Ballard had hoped to serve on the HHAC by offering practical feedback on City policies that affect homeless people. In her 18 months on the committee, said she doesn’t feel like they’ve achieved much.

“A lot of our meetings, we spend our time just listening to the City talk,” she said, explaining they had been tasked with a review of the City’s 10-year Housing & Homelessness plan. “They set the agenda, and we need to review whatever they’ve decided they want to hear from us on.”

City Councillor Mary Rita Holland, who also serves on the HHAC, agrees the committee structure could benefit from revision.

She said the Housing and Social Services Department that drives the HHAC work is mandated by the province, and operates largely independently, even from City Council. “There are some policies that are put in place by provincial legislation that we just don’t have any say over,” she said.

“I think the real value of that HHAC is that it’s given us space for having conversation with some of the service providers,” Holland said, especially over the course of review of the 10-year plan. “It does provide a good venue for having discussions about ongoing problems and potential solutions. But it’s not something that could act quickly or provide direction for how to address a situation like Belle Park.”

Holland added that she is very aware and supportive of the public’s desire to get involved on a more meaningful level. “I think we need a new structure… People feel passionately, they want to be involved in finding solutions. There’s all this history of course, and it takes people a long time to get up to speed to where we’re at,” she said.

Meaningful engagement requires a long-term commitment, she said. “It has to be ongoing discussions. We can’t just get worked up when we notice there are people living in the park. This is something that needs ongoing dedication, and I think the will is there.” Holland suggested tailoring the HHAC or the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing to include more proposals from the public.

Even given her role as a City Councillor, Holland said the pressing questions about how to help people in specific situations such as Belle Park feel beyond her scope, in the near-term.

“I struggle with having discussions along the lines of what the fate of these individuals should be.” Ideally, Holland noted, she would like to see each person in the camp get the required supports to make a sustained shift into stable housing. “I feel like what the best would be to ensure all the counselling and support that would help every individual person see their path and their options, I would want to see that in place,” she said.

“When I hear people discussing it as ‘We should put them here,’ or ‘We should put them there,’ I’m struggling with that language. It’s problematic,” she said.

Next meeting date for HHAC

On Jun. 5, Ochej invited HHAC members to the Jul. 8 meeting. Today, as the Kingstonist exchanged emails with Ochej and other HHAC members, he sent another email inviting members to a meeting on Jul. 7, “to better coincide with the Belle Park encampment work.” However, this attempt was quickly scrapped, and at the time of writing, the next HHAC date remains set at Wednesday, Jul. 8.

“I still don’t see how meeting at 1 p.m. on the day of eviction will produce any helpful results to the Belle Park population,” Ballard said.

The Kingstonist also reached out to Derek Ochej Peter Clarke, and Robert Hosier, Communications Officer for the City of Kingston. Ochej replied that Hosier would respond on the City’s behalf.

“The HHAC is an advisory committee to Council, and provides advice to Council on housing, publicly assisted affordable housing and homelessness policies as is included in the committee mandate, which is part of the Committee By-Law,” Hosier said. “The Committee is not an independent decision-making body and does not direct staff in operational matters.”

He noted that the July 8 meeting will allow HHAC members the opportunity to provide feedback on the City’s responses to housing and homelessness issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I didn’t sign up to be there for good optics for the City,” Ballard said. “I’m not there to pretend that I did some good for the community. If it’s literally there for show, and it’s not doing anything, that’s something we need to talk about.”

Samantha Butler-Hassan, Local Journalism Initiative

Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community. This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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