"Homelessness and alcohol have been a key issue in Thompson for some time. My fellow councilors and I are not blind to the issue. We live in the same community, walk the same streets, and shop at the same grocery stores.
To make both our downtown residents and shoppers safe, we need to give the most vulnerable of us more resources. We cannot police our way out of this issue. RCMP do not have the space to arrest every individual downtown, even if it was the right thing to do. It isn’t.
We’ve been working hard with the Province for the last six months to develop a comprehensive-long term plan to address these needs. But these plans take time to implement. They were not designed to cope with a pandemic.
We are at the table daily with the Province, Federal Government and local partners to lead in addressing the critical state we are now facing, and all of our plans are being accelerated to respond to the community’s needs.”
-Colleen Smook Mayor of Thompson
What do we need to help our homeless residents downtown during the pandemic, and keep other residents safe through social distancing?
Public behavior issues aside, the homeless individuals who live downtown depend on each other for basic survival. They don’t have the personal resources to survive alone in isolation without shelter and assistance. Before homeless residents can be ordered off of the street, three key steps need to be in place:
- The authority to relocate homeless residents to a safe location. Suggesting to homeless residents that they disperse is not enough. Affluent members of society already have enough trouble obeying distancing protocols, despite having the resources and knowledge to do so. The current provincial health orders do not currently give RCMP or the City to force residents to relocate, whether they’re homeless or not.
- A place to house homeless residents. The current Homeless Shelter poses a significant risk for transmission and is beyond capacity nightly. The City has donated the use of the Eastwood rink shelter to provide additional space, but this is not a long-term solution.
- Adequate alcohol detox treatment. Alcohol is one of the few drugs from which withdrawal can be fatal, depending on the level of physical dependence. This is not just a challenge for those without homes, but even among functional alcoholics in our community. Simply closing the liquor store will create significant additional burden on our healthcare system, and AFM facilities are already at full capacity until August. They are also operating at less than half of their usual patient capacity, in order to facilitate social distancing.
What has the City been doing to address the issue?
The City is working to partner CSO’s with the RCMP to ramp up education and outreach in the downtown area. The RCMP already patrol the downtown core regularly, and make multiple arrests under the Criminal Code and provincial statutes in the area every day.
The City of Thompson has also been discussing the repurposing of a provincially-owned building to provide safer accommodations during the pandemic, like the old UCN Polaris buildings. City inspectors will be in the building today to ensure it meets fire and building codes and the City will be supporting necessary adjustments to make the buildings suitable for living, and we’re currently reaching out to community resources to help staff the facility. For now, the Homeless Shelter remains open, and it is able to utilize the warming shelters usually reserved for cold nights.
The Province also released an emergency tender this week to identify hotels or other rental spaces that can be used to house those needing isolation, including the homeless population. The province expects results in from this tender by Friday, at which point they will advise the municipalities of the results.
The City of Thompson was among the communities who petitioned the Province of Manitoba to reduce liquor store hours, restrict the use of VLT’s, and to permit the delivery of alcohol to residences. The Province has implemented these recommendations, and the City continues to hold meetings with Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries to encourage further restrictions: RCMP has reported noticeable drops in crime and loitering during days and hours when the liquor store is closed. The Province of Manitoba has repeatedly stressed to municipalities, however, that only the province has the authority to order private businesses to close.
We'll be updating residents as these steps unfold.
What Our Challenges Are
We need to staff this new facility for the homeless. Even once the building is secure and ready for use, the City will need to assemble local social agencies to provide things like food, healthcare, beds, and security in the building. This will take some time, but we’re already in contact with local groups outlining our plans and requesting help.
A local State of Emergency is not a silver bullet. Larger cities have declared their own states of emergency and imposed more strict conditions than their provinces, and local states of emergency allow a city to act more swiftly than provincial authorities. However, a city must have the resources to wield this power. Vancouver and Calgary may have these resources, but Thompson does not, for many of the reasons stated above. Even should the RCMP begin arresting and detaining individuals who are congregating downtown, they do not have the holding cell capacity to detain them.
When a municipality declares a state of emergency, the additional resources it confers come from the Provincial and federal governments, depending on the scale of the emergency. While the Province has expressed they are taking our concerns seriously, they are coordinating additional resources for communities across Manitoba. Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg have also expressed serious concerns with their downtown population, and similar resource challenges.
We cannot police or arrest our way out of the issue. RCMP have already increased patrols in the downtown area, including City Center Mall and the liquor store area. The violent behavior in front of Wal-Mart is not acceptable, and residents who witness it should report it to the RCMP where possible.
However, RCMP resources are pushed to their limits on a normal day. Thompson’s RCMP is committed to providing a high level of police and public safety service to the City of Thompson. On an average day, the detachment typically has more than 5 officers working on shift. These officers manage roughly 60-100 calls every day, sometimes addressing 10 calls in a single hour.
About 1/5th of these calls are to the downtown area, including the City Center Mall. The remainder of the calls are throughout our community, and include both intoxicated persons as well as severe crimes like public and domestic assault. Even if RCMP were to arrest and detain individuals, local holding cells do not have the capacity to perpetually detain the 30~ individuals who are regularly downtown.
Since January 1, 2020, RCMP calls for service have gone up 12%. Stationing even two police officers in front of the City Center Mall for the entire day commits a significant portion of our daily police resources in a single area, while calls for service continue in other areas of the city.