Nfld. & Labrador

How public safety, mental health and addiction issues reached a boiling point in Happy Valley-Goose Bay

The town council claims that crimes like assaults and public drunkenness are happening every day. While it wants more resources to help with safety and mental health issues, its short-term solutions are drawing criticism from at least one community group.

Town hiring private security company for 24/7 patrols of trail system

This tarp is set up just a short walk from one of the arms of the main trail system in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Regan Burden/CBC)

The Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay is demanding more police and mental health resources from the upper levels of government in a boldly worded media release that states residents are seeing illegal activities everyday, such as public drunkenness, deplorable acts, and even rape.

"Residents and businesses are living and operating in fear," reads the statement, released earlier this month, which also lists damage to personal and private property, trespassing and assault among the crimes it says happen regularly.

In an interview with CBC's Labrador Morning, Mayor Wally Andersen denied that his statement, which suggests the crimes are being committed by people who are homeless and living in the town's trail system within the town, criminalizes the illnesses, including mental health and addictions, of some of those residents.

"We've heard from a lot of people in the community and I know that there's calls to respond and things do happen and it is difficult. But the problem has been ongoing," he said. 

"We need a way to find the right answers. We need to work together to bring all stakeholders together. We want to find a way to reach out and to help these people."

Mayor Wally Andersen says there isn't enough federal and provincial support for mental health and addiction services. (Katie Breen/CBC)

24/7 security and brush-cutting

As part of that push, the town is hiring a security company to patrol neighbourhoods and trails 24/7. In some areas the town is cutting back brush, which began last week in the trail system near Broomfield Street, where three illegal campfires were recently reported in a 24-hour period.

The town began clearing brush last week in parts of the Happy Valley-Goose Bay trail system. (Regan Burden/CBC)

Andersen said the town is finalizing a contract with a security company and all the details of the agreement, including the cost, will be made publicly available.

Town's solutions just create shame, says community group

But the Mokami Status of Women Council, based in Happy Valley-Goose Bay sees things very differently.

Executive director Stacey Hoffe said the town's proposed solutions won't solve the underlying problems.

"We're concerned that security on our trail system would just contribute to colonial practices and could risk criminalizing mental health and addictions," said Hoffe. 

"Brush-cutting could displace people and perpetuate shame.… This idea that we have to get rid of the problem, I think would just further isolate people, which is not what we want."

Hoffe said solutions need to be "trauma-informed" and prioritize harm reduction.

"What that means is moving, or having conversations or creating policies and creating programs with the acknowledgement that people have experienced trauma, whether we know it or not," said Hoffe.

Stacey Hoffe, executive director of the Mokami Status of Women Council, says the town's approach borders on criminalizing addictions and mental health issues. (Submitted by Stacey Hoffe)

In its statement, the town called the situation "a public safety issue, not a race issue," but Hoffe noted Indigenous people are disproportionately represented in the homeless population.

"If we intentionally remove this from the conversation, or fail to acknowledge it, we're really missing out on unique needs and unique experiences of this population," she said.

"If we are not considering that, we are not making informed decisions around how to create safer spaces and safer conversations."

Mokami, in a statement released earlier this month in response to the town's media release said, "to end homelessness we need to change the system, not the people."

So how do you change the system? 

"There's not just one easy answer to address this," said Hoffe.

A mini-Gathering Place?

The town's statement encompasses two parallel conversations, said Labrador Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster: one is about supporting vulnerable populations, and the other is public safety.

"I believe the town is genuine when they say they're concerned about public safety in their community," she said.

To address the issues, the provincial government is looking at a "mini-Gathering Place model" for Happy-Valley Goose Bay, Dempster said, citing a St. John's not-for-profit organization that offers support to marginalized adults and people experiencing homelessness, offering meals and medical services.

"It's a holistic, integrated approach," said Dempster.

Minister Lisa Dempster says the issues in Happy Valley-Goose Bay involve both public safety and working with vulnerable populations. (CBC)

But while council and the provincial government may be looking at the Gathering Place model, making that a reality will not "move as fast as we would like it," said Dempster.

Andersen wouldn't say if he thought the money the town is spending on a private security company and brush-cutting would be better spent on addictions and mental health counselling, but said those resources would be the responsibility of the provincial government and he wants to see more help on the ground now.

"The problems are there. This is probably one of the main reasons why we've seen these people out in the woods is because there are not enough specialists who deal with alcohol and drug abuse programs from the provincial and the federal government," says Andersen.

Premier Andrew Furey, who said he has read the town's statement, said the issues are long-standing and complex.

"We have taken action. We have increased the number of resources. We've increased the wraparound support. We've been working with the Salvation Army. We've increased the number of outreach workers. We provide extra housing and we will continue to do so," he said.

The Mokami Status of Women Council agrees with the town's call for more funding from the provincial and federal governments for affordable housing and mental health and addiction supports, "but that's just the tip of the iceberg," said Hoffe. 

To address the systemic change needed, she said, more affordable child care and a higher minimum wage are needed, and there should be no cuts to social services.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Regan Burden

Journalist

Regan Burden works with Labrador Morning from CBC's bureau in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

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