North Bay is a small community with a big-city swagger and dreamy aspirations.
And by the numbers, it’s punching above its weight class in many of the statistical categories for the larger centres of Northern Ontario.
Unfortunately, it’s the measurements of crime, overdoses, suicides and homelessness where the Gateway of the North is over-achieving.
So it’s a good thing council approved a Community Safety and Wellness Plan a couple of weeks ago — not that they had a choice. The province now requires every municipality to draw a map for finding the perfect blend of social bliss. It was mandated through policing legislation because cops across Ontario are spending too much time dealing with the people who fall through our social safety net. Basically, those with mental health challenges and/or struggling with addictions are landing in the laps of cops. The idea is to help them before it’s a crisis that gobbles up resources intended for protecting the community from criminal elements.
There’re plenty of statistics in the research used to develop the 40-page document.
To summarize, there are 79 agencies and groups providing services that involve mental health, addictions, and housing supports, and they all fight for scarce funding. All have good intentions but the need to define and protect turf is part of the problem.
North Bay is unique because the municipality has no capacity under its direct control to do anything. The District of Nipissing Social Services Administration Board, the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit and Local Health Integration Network, for example, don’t answer to the city.
So the city has to play quarterback yet can’t make the calls and nothing much can be done anyway unless the province or feds approve funding.
Yet, here we are so it’s good to have a plan.
It may seem odd that communities would have to be forced into gripping the reins of their own destiny. But it makes more sense if you look at it as the maintenance of the social safety net, which becomes tattered by the cycles of democracy. You have to find the gaps and sew a few of the squares together.
And there’s no doubt better coordination of the myriad of health and social service agencies providing support programs will certainly help.
But Councillor George Maroosis hit the nail on the head when he opposed the motion for the city to approve the so-called “Plan.”
Maroosis wasn’t intending to throw a wrench into the voting machinery this time around, as he is wont to do. It was clearly destined to pass. A plan of some kind was legally required by July 1 and — judging by the speeches by councillors Scott Robertson, Mark King, Mac Bain, Bill Vrebosch, and Dave Mendicino — the numbers were there.
Maroosis, who has the most political experience dealing with such social issues, was merely bringing attention to how the plan lacks detailed strategies to achieve the goals. So, by definition, it’s not a real plan.
If treatment services for addictions and mental health illness are not expanded — in the midst of an opioid use crisis — there is no hope of stemming the tide that is overrunning existing agencies, he said. Without treatment, people who are on the margins can’t be stabilized, and that inevitably leads to homelessness — which leads to crisis.
And he warned that the societal pressures that fuel addictions and mental health — such as poverty — are getting worse rather than better. He was also clear that there needs to be a place for those who can’t function or are “unhouse-able,” noting the North Bay Regional Health Centre is not getting funding for the beds that were supposed to replace what was lost when the psychiatric hospital was torn down.
Maroosis is right to draw attention to the urgency and he’s not wrong about it getting worse very soon. There’s every indication that major and immediate action is needed now to not only deal with current levels of disparity but a train full of woes coming this way as the pandemic hit to the economy shakes out.
One quote from the research in the plan makes it clear: “The pandemic has also resulted in an economic recession that researchers anticipate will lead to an increase in homelessness that could be felt up to five years from the onset of the recession (Falvo, 2020).”
The good news is that badly needed transitional housing options are in the works already, stemming from the advance work of the Roundtable of groups created a couple of years ago. Credit to Mayor Al McDonald for recognizing that there are a lot of moving parts impacting the city’s safety and well-being. Breaking it all up into manageable parts and working together to fill gaps efficiently is the right approach.
King, chairman of DNSSAB, noted there are 30 transitional housing units that should be ready before September and that should give them some breathing room for now.
There’s also the North Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre’s Suswin project on the go to offer options for closing gaps.
In the end, though, without provincial and federal funding to reduce the wait lines for key treatment services, people will continue to fall through the safety net gaps.
And cops will have to continue wearing their social worker hats as well as the caps with badges.
Good thing it’s election season and everybody has a well-researched plan in hand to lobby for the necessary funding.
It might be their last chance to make a difference before the dam of looming economic depression busts.
Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses related to his work can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact the writer directly, email: email@example.com or check out his website www.smalltowntimes.ca