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Emotions run high at city town hall on safety concerns

'You guys see nuisance, I see lost souls,' encampment resident tells those at mayor's town hall for safety concerns

City hall was packed with Cambridge residents ready to voice their concerns around safety in the city on Thursday night. 

Before the safety town hall began the stir of emotions could be felt in the air as members of the community sat frustrated in their seats. 

Mayor Jan Liggett and her council decided to hold the town hall meeting to address safety concerns in the city and remind everyone what the city can and cannot do. 

"One of the worst things about being an elected official is wanting to fix everything immediately for you," said Liggett. "Some promise during elections to make immediate change their first day on the job and the cold reality is change may not come at a pace that we may want or what we promised." 

One of the main topics of the night was the growing anger from residents about the city's inability to remove or meet the concerns of residents in regards to the encampment on regional property at 150 Main St. 

One by one, members of the community got up and voiced their fears and told their stories about how they have been negatively affected by the camp. 

A resident who identified himself as Mike from Ward 4 asked the council, why 150 Main St. is exempt from property standard complaints from bylaw. 

"If I left my property in that condition I would have bylaw at my door, the same should apply to the region," he added. 

John Mattocks, manager of municipal bylaw compliance for the City of Cambridge, detailed that enforcing municipal by-law on regional or provincial government is unknown territory. 

"Typically our bylaws don't apply to a higher level of government," said Mattocks. "We do have requests out to our legal team to see if we can change that." 

Mike told the council that he used to ride his bike downtown Galt everyday, but in recent years has stopped due to the fear he will be assaulted or have his property stolen. 

"I was going to ride my bike down here but I didn't, because there is a good chance that it would be stolen," said Mike. 

One of the solutions residents suggested to help solve the issues those living around 150 Main St. are facing is to build more affordable housing. 

Helen Schwery lives in Ward 1 and would like to see more supportive housing built in the city to get people off the streets and into a home. 

Unfortunately, housing is not a city responsibility, but one that lies with region, said Liggett. 

"At the city we don't do housing, but what we have done is we provide land and offered up land for affordable housing, but we haven't had any takers," she added.

Ken Bell who lives in Ward 5, got up to the mic and pleaded with the mayor to use her newly gifted, strong mayor's power, to make the city safer and remove the encampment. 

"I can't make the community safe," said Liggett. "I don't have any say in how police operate the only thing I can do with my vote is to vote in support of the police budget." 

The main reason for the strong mayor's power is to get housing built in the city. The mayor cannot override the region to remove the camp or increase the police presence in the area, according to Liggett. 

Many of the questions involved removing the camp and kicking out the residents who are often portrayed as violent or out to cause trouble in the city. 

A women who identified herself as Amanda got up to clear the air around the encampment as she is currently a resident at 150 Main St. 

"I receive a lot of slander online, because of a councillor's 'community watch group' on Facebook. How do I protect my privacy and safety living at the tent encampment," asked Amanda. "You guys see nuisance, I see lost souls." 

Neighbourhood Watch Cambridge is a Facebook group that current city councillor Adam Cooper is an administrator for. The group often posts pictures and videos of what residents see at 150 Main St. often putting a spotlight on the negative things that happen in the camp.

Cooper takes this as an opportunity to respond directly to Amanda and defend the group that he helps run. 

"When it comes to the camp we have to understand that there is a criminal element and unfortunately it causes a lot of problems," he said. 

Cooper thinks that there needs to be more housing, but as long as the camp remains downtown it will continue to be a pool for drugs and unsafe criminal activity. 

Another former resident of the Cambridge encampment, who identified himself as Kyle Oxenham, is now living at the open shelter on Erb Street in Waterloo. 

He grew up and spent his whole life in Cambridge and became homeless last year. When moving into the camp on Main Street he noticed that the people who were causing the most trouble were the ones visiting and not the ones who actually live there. 

"It's unfair that the residents have to deal with the riff-raff that goes on there," said Austin. "It is a cesspool for crime and drugs, but the people living there are just trying to find a place to live. There are a lot of people with mental health issues, but it's the people who hang around that cause the problems."

Liggett mentioned it will be at least another two years before the City of Cambridge can expect to see a shelter like the one in Waterloo. She calls for more supportive housing in the city and wants to put the pressure on the province to make it happen. 

"The province needs to get off their rear ends," said Liggett. 

She adds the Ford government has wasted $1 billion a year cancelling the license plate sticker program and has been pushing them to create a new tax revenue stream that will be dedicated to solving the homelessness crisis. 

"Imagine if for the last five years we had $5 billion to spend on fixing these issues," said Liggett. We need Detox beds, rehab beds and supportive housing. We need to hold our politicians feet to the fire, like you are all doing tonight." 

A frustrated member of the community got up to challenge Liggett and her council and asked what they are there for if not solving the issues the city has? 

"Why do we elect you? Why do we pay you when every question asked tonight and in part two is for the region, it's always the region," asked the angry resident. 

Coun. Cooper reminded him that there are multiple tiers of government and that with the current system, the City of Cambridge has little to no jurisdiction over many areas and issues in the city. 

"We're trying, we are acting and we're not happy," said Cooper. 

Regional councillor and former Cambridge mayor Doug Craig took some time to speak to the crowd and address the region's role in removing the encampment. 

Craig said the region is unable to do anything about the camp due to a judges decision barring them from touching or removing any encampment in the region. 

"We would need housing for every homeless person in the region before we can even think about removing one of the camps," he added. "This is the judge's decision and we're living with the consequences and it's very frustrating." 

There will be a part two for this town hall in the fall where members of regional council and Waterloo Regional Police will attend to speak on many of the issues regarding the encampment and public safety. 

Details about the event will be available closer to the date. 

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Joe McGinty

About the Author: Joe McGinty

Joe McGinty is a multimedia journalist who covers local news in the Cambridge area. He is a graduate of Conestoga College and began his career as a freelance journalist at CambridgeToday before joining full time.
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