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Anger, frustration dominate community safety discussion

Monday's Community Safety Town Hall at city hall offered residents a chance to voice concerns and hear from staff at the Region of Waterloo and the chief of police

"We've already heard all of this," blasted Cambridge resident John Gardner. "Change it. That's all we're saying. Do something different. Listen to us."

That was the sentiment of many among the close to 100 residents voicing concerns about everything from homelessness and police response to property standards and traffic hazards at a community safety town hall Monday.

It was the second organized at city hall this summer by Mayor Jan Liggett in response to growing anger and frustration across the city and a month after the encampment at 150 Main St. was shut down after the region offered shelter beds to the two remaining residents.

Gardner's comment, which earned applause from the crowd, came after a panel, which included city manager David Calder, Mayor Jan Liggett, Region of Waterloo CAO Bruce Lauckner and police chief Mark Crowell, outlined their responsibilities and detailed efforts the region and city are undertaking to make residents of Cambridge feel safe in their own community.

His main concern had to do with Robert Kerr Manor, a regionally managed subsidized housing complex on Concession Street. 

Gardner, who said he and other neighbours have been harassed and threatened by people living at the complex, demanded to see a safety audit of the residence. It's been almost a year since he was removed from a regional committee meeting by security for asking the same.

But the commissioner of community services for the region, Peter Sweeney, was adamant the situation has improved since "high needs" residents of the apartments have been under the supervision of social services support staff from Indwell.

Concerns along the same lines came from a woman who walks through Soper Park to get to work every morning where she has recently been confronted by several men that have harassed and intimidated her. She said many from the former encampment at 150 Main have relocated there and are responsible for property crime in the neighbourhood.

"The justice system is failing us," she said.

But Crowell pointed out that police are only part of the justice system. "We are doing everything we can to arrest and hold people accountable."

"We need your reporting. We need your eyes and ears to know where we need to be," he said. 

As Liggett acknowledged, some of what residents were asking for is beyond the scope of the municipality to manage, particularly around mental health and addiction. She said the province needs to go back to funding facilities where people can get the treatment they need.

There aren't enough bricks and mortar facilities in the province to serve Cambridge, let alone the region, she said.

The mayor said she spoke with associate minister of mental health and addictions MPP Michael Tibollo during last month's Association of Municipal Organizations conference and left feeling they were "very receptive" to the idea of funding more facilities, but admitted it will take "all the stars to align" to make it happen.

Crowell said there's a lot of advocacy from the chiefs of police around funding for better mental health services, which he admits are a "bit of a mess" in the province now. It forces people who need those supports to travel to communities where the services are provided, he said.

One woman said she knows unhoused people need access to services offered at 150 Main St., but wondered why a location "on the outskirts of the city" isn't appropriate for a shelter if wrap-around services are provided on site.  

"They have no problem getting across the city to do all sorts of horrible things," she added.

Galt business owner Joanne Malone said her walks to work have gone increasingly "down hill." She regularly sees open drug use, drunkenness and takes verbal abuse on the walk between Parkhill and LA Franks on Water Street.

"I do not feel safe," she said.

Adding to the problem is the availability of beer and wine at the nearby grocery store, which Liggett said she asked bylaw to investigate. 

The city's manager of municipal bylaw compliance John Mattocks said the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario investigated the store and found no violation around liquor sales, but they promised to continue to monitor the issue and could revoke the store's license if a violation is found.

Tim Malone said he remembers hearing all about the four pillar approach in the region's drug strategy during discussions about the consumption and treatment services site, but hasn't seen anything done around prevention, enforcement and treatment to complement that harm reduction effort.

Dan Clements, an advocate for affordable housing and a member of the grassroots group Citizens For Cambridge, said the only way the region can win the battle against homelessness is to do everything it can to seek more money from the provincial and federal governments.

He asked what the priorities would be if the region had the money it needed to address the issue.

Lauckner said mental health supports would be key along with improved rent supports, hiring more outreach workers, enforcement, healthcare and free land for developers to build more affordable housing.

Amanda Speed wanted to know what the plan is for people who were displaced from the encampment at 150 Main, calling the region's insistence that the people living there were offered alternative living arrangements a "blatant lie."

"Where are we supposed to go?" she asked.

Another woman who identified as homeless said the list for supported housing is a 10-year wait. "What is the region actually doing to help the homeless because in my opinion, they're not doing too much."

"We're not doing enough," Sweeney said, admitting that even with a $192 million investment from the region to tackle the housing crisis, it's not enough.

Offers of safe shelter are always provided, he said. "We know they choose to live unsheltered because it doesn't meet their needs for various reasons."

"We are advocating for more resources," he said. "We are the only province in Canada where homelessness is a regional responsibility."

Cambridge MPP Brian Riddell was on vacation and could not attend the meeting. Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Jess Dixon was at the meeting but was called away, Liggett told the crowd. She later returned.

A previous version of this story said Mayor Jan Liggett met with health minister Sylvia Jones at the AMO conference when in fact she met with the associate minister of mental health and addictions, Vaughan–Woodbridge MPP Michael Tibollo. Also, Kitchener South-Hespeler MPP Jess Dixon did attend the meeting. CambridgeToday regrets the errors.