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Council votes down motion on homelessness as residents express frustration

Ward 4 Coun. Ross Earnshaw's motion would have added the City of Cambridge to a long list of Ontario municipalities appealing to the provincial government for assistance to deal with the homelessness crisis
Ward 4 councillor Ross Earnshaw presented a motion that would ask the provincial government for assistance in dealing with homelessness in the city. It was defeated by a 6-3 vote.

Cambridge councillors voted down a motion Tuesday that sought action from the province to address homelessness, and will instead make plans for a July town hall to address demands from neighbours of the encampment at 150 Main St. that something be done immediately to help them feel safe in their own homes. 

The motion, tabled by Ward 4 councillor Ross Earnshaw, appealed to the province for assistance with the crisis but was voted down 6-3 at Tuesday's meeting.

Had it passed, it would have called on the provincial government to commit to ending homelessness and work with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and a broad range of community, health, Indigenous and economic partners, to develop, resource and implement an action plan to achieve the goal.

It also requested immediate funding support for the development and operation of outdoor shelters and for supportive housing providers to target those in the most need.

Funding would also be requested for municipalities to make municipality-owned property available at little or no cost for outdoor shelters and supportive housing development.

Cambridge is not the only municipality making a push for more resources, as several others in the province have endorsed motions similar to the one council discussed.

Earnshaw, along with councillors Scott Hamilton and Donna Reid voted in favour.

Earnshaw says he has been flooded with emails from residents in the neighbourhood of the encampment at 150 Main St. calling for action.

"I was inundated with messages from the neighbourhood adjacent to the encampment," Earnshaw said.

"They demonstrated that residents had been pushed beyond the limit of their tolerance. I understand their frustration and concern. I feel people should have the right to feel safe and secure in their homes."

However, Earnshaw points to the regional government being responsible for the land, police, housing and public health as barriers to the city's ability to act, which in part prompted the motion.

Despite the motion being voted down, Earnshaw says many of the councillors agree the issue needs to be addressed and that many parts of the motion were favourable.

"I’ve taken some encouragement by councillors who voted against the motion but in their remarks said there were substantial parts they could support but just not in its entirety," he said.

"Other councillors said they've heard the concerns of the citizens and were sympathetic to the plight they find themselves in."

According to Earnshaw, one issue some had with the motion was the wording about wraparound services. Some found it too vague and not sufficiently specific enough.

Earnshaw says he's disappointed with the outcome but feels the motion has brought about greater transparency with the public that council is working to address the issue. 

Hamilton seconded and worked on the motion with Earnshaw and echoed his disappointment at the result, saying no motion is ever perfect.

"We're in a social world of people, economics and history where this is extremely complex and messy," Hamilton said

"No motion ever can be perfect. If we sit back and wait for a perfect motion, it'll never come. We can ask those with the power to enact change that Cambridge needs some help here. We as councillors are frustrated because we're trying to do as much as we can, but were limited in power and capacity when it's under the jurisdiction of the region and province. We don't have the legal capability to go in and clear out encampments."

Hamilton also wants the community to understand that this motion is not about being for or against encampments, but is symbolic in joining other municipalities in their push to gain provincial support.

"The motion is not advocating for more encampments, it's advocating for help," he said.

"We need to ask for help and present a firm case to the governmental powers above us on why we need it. We have to do something, that's always better than nothing."

While homelessness is clearly a top priority, the lack of action is beginning to take its toll on residents in the community.

Coun. Adam Cooper sent a letter to regional council Tuesday criticizing the region's lack of action to remove the encampment and demanding something be done immediately despite whatever legal challenge it poses. 

"To try to sell the concept to the public and media that this encampment is a place of any kind of safety and refuge for the poor homeless of our community is at minimum a lesson in government ignorance and at worst a disgusting display of abandonment of duty and a shocking indifference to the plight of the very people that we have all sworn to represent," reads the letter.

Carol Thorman, was one of the delegations speaking to Earnshaw's motion Tuesday, and said when she first read it, she was elated.

"I though finally, someone is going to do something." But when she got into what she hoped would be the meat of the motion, she said all she found was "watery gravy."

She agrees that the feds and the province are sorely lacking in their support for tackling homelessness and its root causes, but doesn't feel the motion addresses what needs to happen to ensure the safety of the entire community.

"To continue to lower the barriers to accommodate the people that refuse to live by normal rules of society is not helping anyone," she said. "We're creating neighbourhoods where children are afraid to go to school, people are afraid to walk in their own neighbourhoods. They're putting up fences, security cameras, not sleeping at night because of the yelling and screaming. We can see the piles of stolen goods that are openly displayed because there are no repercussions."

Some examples of what Thorman spoke about are regularly posted on Facebook by neighbours of the encampment. 

A 25-year resident of the neighbourhood, who wanted to remain anonymous, told CambridgeToday he no longer feels safe in his home after experiencing a break-in and having his property repeatedly stolen. He believes it all started with the location of The Bridges shelter.

"Cambridge is a very unique place," he said.

"With the markets and the potential for growth in the downtown, but that's all changed and the main issue was going ahead with the motion of The Bridges. Unfortunately at the very beginning it seemed like a positive thing for the people there. After five years or so, all of a sudden the trouble was all over the place here. Items are getting stolen and people are going through your property."

The resident's issue isn't with the idea of the shelter itself, but its location and how it has bled into the downtown.

He also feels that cuts to health care by the provincial government have made matters worse when it comes to getting help and understands there are multiple layers of government that have failed to put their words into action.

"The governments aren't looking out for the people that are paying their taxes," he said.

"Since this encampment opened up about a year ago I've had a home invasion. This guy came into my house and started looking through all my stuff and scoping it out. After I asked him what he was doing, he ran and by the time I got outside he was gone."

With schools and children in the area, his frustrating is starting to boil over.

"I don't feel safe here anymore," he said.

"I don't go outside much. I don't want to go outside."

The Waterloo Regional Police Service has been called to the encampment multiple times since last summer, most recently for a fire and a person wielding an axe. 

Earnshaw pointed out that part of each council meeting is to discuss other business and during that time Mayor Jan Liggett indicated she will be convening a town hall on the matter.

He says no date is set and a lot needs to be organized but it should take place sometime in the beginning of July.

Unfortunately, audio issues prevented those watching the live stream of the council meeting from listening to the discussion about the motion.

When reached for comment on the vote, the city said it couldn't respond by deadline.