By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Northumberland County has issued a notice that refers to a “general clean up” of the encampment at its Cobourg building at 600 William St. “on or after” Wednesday, Sept. 6, at noon.
How the county has been coping with the encampment was shared at a special county-council meeting Tuesday morning that ended with a vote to proceed with the clean-up, under the authority of the Trespass to Property Act, with Integrity Investigative Solutions Limited and Cobourg Police Service as their agents.
Prior to the vote, the situation was set out for councillors by Chief Administrative Officer Jennifer Moore, Director of Community and Social Services Lisa Horne and Northumberland Paramedics Chief Susan Brown.
Moore gave a brief history of the situation, which began several weeks ago as an encampment of tents and people on Cobourg’s west beach. At that time, she said, outreach workers from the county and elsewhere were attending regularly to see if these people could be connected with housing and other social services – to mixed response.
“Around Aug. 21, there was some indication there was an intention for that encampment to voluntarily relocate and, over the course of Aug. 22 and 23, they chose to relocate to the current site.”
Moore reminded councillors that 600 William St. is home to vital emergency and community paramedic services, as well as the Food 4 All Warehouse and other county departments including economic development, tourism, land-use planning, inspections and communications.
Staff advised encampment members that this location was not appropriate, but the outreach continued. However, round-the-clock security services were engaged to ensure the safety of property, staff and operations.
Brown shared many of the concerns the paramedics had on a number of levels, including staff safety, ease of ambulance ingress and egress, the conduct of encampment members – who are set up, she pointed out, directly adjacent to paramedic services.
Due to what she termed “verbal back-and-forth” and other actions, Brown said, staffing placement has had to be rejiggered, with all the inherent complications of complying with union contracts.
Many paramedics are now based out of Colborne, Brown said, which is not always as efficient.
Back in Cobourg, the south entrance to 600 William St. – normally reserved for authorized vehicles like the ambulances – is not always clear of loiterers and wanderers and bicycles, which can hinder a quick life-saving exit. Once notified of an emergency, ambulances strive to be out of the base with the garage doors shut behind them within two minutes maximum. Now the driveway may not be clear or they may have to take extra time to ensure the doors are closed completely and securely.
Paramedics in the garage are sometimes startled by people peeking through the windows in the wee hours of the morning or attempts to break into the vehicles that are stored outside the garage.
Outside the garage, they are accosted by people asking for epipens, money, food, washrooms and hydro. On one occasion, this was done so aggressively that a team lead could not report for work there due to her husband’s and children’s fear for her safety.
Consider something as simple as being watched by a group as you arrive at work and exit your vehicle, Brown said – increased stress has to be a given, Brown. Paramedics have been known to use alternate entrances and exits in the building, and vehicles are sometimes forced to remain on the street as they wait for the driveway to be cleared.
And within the encampment, conduct can become disorderly, with urinating and defecating openly (in spite of porta-potties on-site), and increased aggressiveness toward staff and security.
Agents on patrol are told things like, “Stay off our grass.” Electric vehicles and other equipment left plugged in are disconnected so often they have been forced to shut off the hydro to those outlets. Fights among these people requiring a police response are increasing.
Encampment members sorting through the dumpsters spark fears about injury and liability. Tenters trying to start open fires for cooking near flammable structures are another such concern. But intervention by staffers is often met with confrontation.
Horne spoke of the collaboration among many community partners working to find alternatives for those members of the encampment who can be helped in various ways.
“Not everybody is ready for sheltering, so what we can do in the moment to try to assist them,” she said, listing such measures as ensuring they have food and access to documents to fill out for social assistance.
Still, she said, a clear hierarchy has developed among this small community that creates challenges for such efforts when they are told things like, “If you want to talk to so-and-so, you have to go through me.” In effect, these efforts affect their ability to help and, at times, even to convey information. They have even had instances where they managed to connect with an individual who, later, was dissuaded from accepting help.
Moore said there had been daily meetings on the situation to monitor its effects and ensure uninterrupted operations.
“It was decided late last week it wasn’t a sustainable situation, so we have looked at various obligations that we have.”
All along, she said, there have been communications to members of the encampment that it is not a long-term option and they are available to help them move on. But they are not satisfied with how well they are meeting their obligations for such things as staff security.
Horne said their partners have worked to expand capacity in the sheltering system, though – in answer to Port Hope Mayor Olena Hankivsky’s question – it is hard to say how many individuals will require it, as there is no certain way to separate encampment members from members of the community who gather with them. Her best estimate is 15 to 25 people.
“You do have to bear in mind accessing these services is voluntary for everyone,” Moore reiterated.
“There will be some folks that will choose another path and choose not to accept any of the various services they are offered.”
And in answer to Alnwick-Haldimand Township Mayor John Logel’s question about time frame, Moore confirmed that the notices issued will request that the vacating be done within 24 hours.
Any property left will be discarded and not stored, the county’s notice warned, saying workers would be on site to provide support.