Kenora, Ont., is in an 'unstoppable' homeless and addiction crisis, with few easy answers to solve it
Amid calls in the city for more collaboration, overdoses and HIV cases keep rising
When Donovan Bullied walks through downtown Kenora, he's hit with memories, most of them from the time he called the streets home.
He'd walk around all night to keep warm, which is not easy during a northwestern Ontario winter. Two years ago, he fell through the ice and was stuck in wet shoes for two weeks, and was left with permanent nerve damage, trench foot and frostbite.
But he said the worst pain he's experienced is the stigma of being homeless and using drugs.
Bullied is among the many people who've experienced homelessness and addiction in Kenora. He said he's faced discrimination, even abuse from the broader public. Community leaders and outreach workers attempting to find solutions say these deep social divisions are making a difficult task even harder.
Bullied said he was kicked out of stores, pointed out and laughed at, and was told by someone who pulled over that they were going to throw things at him — before they recognized who he was.
"This area represents some of the toughest and the hardest times of my life, but also the most abundant blessings that I've ever received through my sobriety in this community."
A doctor's concerns
Bullied started using drugs when he was nine years old. Three months ago, he began his recovery from addiction. The 25-year-old receives treatment from the Sunset Country Family Health Team.
"I'm alive today because of their support and their love."
Dr. Jonny Grek of the Sunset Country Family Health Team sees first hand what people in the street community are going through. He treats patients wherever they're comfortable accessing services, like the Kenora Fellowship Centre or Ne-Chee Friendship Centre.
Grek has become increasingly concerned about the health and safety of his patients.
"We now have lots of new HIV cases, not great consolidated care for those people with HIV and a number of fatal overdoses," he said. "The situation just seems unstoppable at the moment."
The latest data from the Northwestern Health Unit (NWHU) shows a spike in HIV/AIDS cases over the past year.
In 2022, there were nine confirmed cases in Kenora. In the previous eight years, there were only eight confirmed cases, according to NWHU data, and Grek has told CBC News he believes the numbers may be higher than official tallies.
Lack of housing stock also remains a barrier. When a downtown property called Lila's Block burned down in 2019, a lot of vulnerable people were displaced.
The situation just seems unstoppable at the moment.- Dr. Jonny Grek
"That was a place that officially housed about 20 people, unofficially probably 100 people," Grek said.
Henry Wall, chief administrative officer of the Kenora District Services Board (KDSB), estimates about 100 people are experiencing homelessness in Kenora. More than 1,300 households are on the wait list for affordable housing from KDSB, he said — a jump from 386 at the end of 2014.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down housing projects, but Wall said a few are underway:
- 20-unit affordable housing project downtown, to be completed in mid-May.
- 30-unit supportive housing project, to be completed at the end of the fall.
- 56-unit seniors housing development, to be completed in September 2024.
But until those are built, many people are left with nowhere to go.
Resistance to people who are homeless often shows up on social media, where business owners complain about loitering outside their doors and drug supplies that are left behind.
Needles have become symbolic of the drug crisis in Kenora, said Becky Shorrock, a registered nurse in the community.
"People [are] very much focused on the needle itself, and they forget to take a step back and look at the individual and the circumstance that led them toward addiction," she said.
During an interview with CBC News, a business owner asked Shorrock to pick up a needle outside their storefront. She put it in one of the black disposal bins located in town.
People like Lana Ogemah, a peer support worker for Elevate NWO, empty these bins. Ogemah is six months into her recovery from addiction.
Nobody wants needles on the streets, she said, but there's a story behind how the needles got there.
"It's not like they woke up and decided: 'Oh, I'm gonna be homeless, or I'm gonna be a drug addict or I'm gonna be an alcoholic,'" Ogemah said. "Everybody's got some sort of story."
Community meetings, action plans
Tensions surrounding homelessness and drug use have been around for years, but came to a head shortly after Christmas following an assault at the downtown business Island Girl.
Mayor Andrew Poirier called an emergency council meeting days afterwards regarding public safety.
One of the action items from that meeting was to hire a community safety and well-being co-ordinator. Poirier said that role should be filled in April, and will involve overseeing a new crime prevention and community well-being advisory committee, which will communicate with agencies, relay information to council and advocate to upper levels of government.
In the meantime, many businesses have locked their doors during operating hours, with customers having to ring a doorbell to gain entry.
- Public safety concerns about crime, substance use in Kenora, Ont., prompt emergency city council meeting
Andy Scribilo, president of the Kenora and District Chamber of Commerce, said business owners are feeling on edge.
He also cited a report from the Kenora detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police where 70 per cent of residents surveyed in July 2020 felt unsafe walking alone downtown at night.
CBC News asked OPP for updates on that survey, but did not receive a response.
But then there's people like Adrianna Pronteau, who has been part of the street community for a few years, and described what it's like for her to walk downtown.
"I had to pass by two vehicles and like, you could clearly see that I was struggling, and right as I passed by them, you could just hear them lock their doors," she said. "That's not a good feeling."
That us-versus-them dichotomy is clear in Kenora, and it's not helping the situation, said Liz Visser, who works in social services. She's involved with Kenora Moving Forward, a coalition of people who help the street community by offering meals and overseeing warming and cooling spaces.
"It's palpable. You can cut the tension with a knife," said Visser "This [tension] is what we have to push past. How can we all sit at the same table in a good way and move this conversation forward?"
A way forward?
Several community agencies in Kenora serve vulnerable people:
- The Canadian Mental Health Association runs the overnight shelter.
- Elevate NWO provides harm reduction services.
- Kenora Fellowship Centre provides meals and a drop-in seven days a week.
- The Kenora Makwa Patrol shuttles people to and from agencies and provides essential supplies on the ground.
But there's a gap between when the Fellowship Centre closes at 4 p.m. and the shelter opens at 8:30 p.m. — a time period where people have nowhere to go. There's limited beds at the shelter and at Morningstar Detox Centre, and a lack of public washrooms.
CBC News heard calls for more collaboration between agencies from numerous people — like Poirier, Scribilo, members of Kenora Moving Forward, the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre, and individuals with lived experience of homelessness and drug use.
Patti Fairfield, executive director of the Ne-Chee Friendship Centre, said organizations like hers must also answer to the persisting issues.
"We have to be accountable as organizations because if we're not working together and ensuring people's needs are being met to the fullest … we're part of the problem," she said.
As Visser, from Kenora Moving Forward, pointed out, when organizations are submitting funding proposals, they're competing for the same pot of money, oftentimes to serve the same group of people under different mandates.
Holly Gauvin, executive director of Elevate NWO, echoed the importance of collaboration while discussing the rise of overdoses and HIV cases.
"This is not a hopeless situation by any means," she said, "but we need to dig deep and do that work, and we can only do it if we're doing it together and the entire community can be part of that solution, right?
"This isn't just a health-care issue. This is a community issue and we need to address it as a full community."
Advocates and business owners alike told CBC News that something needs to be done to address homelessness and drug use in Kenora, going beyond helping people survive to helping them seek housing or recovery, if and when they're ready for it.
It's a matter of what, and how.
Members of Kenora Moving Forward are advocating for a 24-hour warming/cooling centre that can provide wraparound supports. In March, city councillors unanimously passed a notice of motion for the city to explore the feasibility of such a centre.
People who use drugs and community agency staff also say a safe consumption site is needed.
Christopher Kelly, patron support worker at the Kenora Fellowship Centre, said people who come through the doors "always mention they would like to see a safe injection site open up and they feel that that would help them a lot."
Kenora's mayor, Poirier, said he won't comment on that recommendation until the NWHU releases its safe consumption services feasibility study. Those results were expected in March, but they've been delayed several times already.
When considering both a 24-hour centre and a safe consumption site, there's the question of where these places would be located, and how receptive the broader community would be of them.
Grek said a safe consumption site is needed in Kenora, but should be a place where people's medical and social service needs are met as well. But he admits, that's a big ask of a community that has experienced "trauma upon trauma."
"Where is it going to be that isn't going to increase the level of stigma that is shown toward those folks? And also, who's going to have a safe injection site next to their business realistically?" he asked.
Connection is what he sees among members of the street community every day and is what people on all sides are calling for: communication, collaboration and connection.
Donovan Bullied said being treated with respect is the biggest reason why he's been able to move forward with his life. Shortly after speaking with CBC News, he reunited with his dad.
For him, that's what stability looks like.
"I can honestly say I truly love myself," he said. "I've done a lot of bad things, but that doesn't make me a bad person."