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'Big-city problems': How booming Brampton is dealing with a spike in homelessness

Brampton is one of the country's fastest growing cities, but its political and business leaders say they're discovering a downside to that popularity: a burgeoning homeless population.

Businesses, citizens, politicians and activists call for more help as homeless population rises

A homeless man huddles in the rain in Brampton's Garden Square. It's unclear exactly how many people in Brampton are homeless, but the number in Peel region is estimated to be more than 900. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Brampton is one of the country's fastest growing cities, but its political and business leaders say they're discovering a downside to that popularity: a burgeoning homeless population that's frustrating downtown shop owners and scaring away some residents.

"It's like an avalanche; you can't stop it," Amavel Rodrigues told CBC News.

He's alarmed at what he sees as an increase in the number of people living on the streets in the past six months or so. His pizzeria, Juice and Rocco's, is on Brampton's Main Street, adjacent to a popular downtown gathering place, Garden Square. 

"The homelessness and a lot of the littering that comes with it ... the drug use, you know, sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't," he said.

"There's a lot of panhandling as well. It's very frustrating."

The head of the local business improvement area denies Brampton's problems are different from any other community coming to grips with a fast-growing population.

"We do see more people on the streets and we do have a number of service providers in our downtown core who are very passionate about helping these people," said Suzy Godefroy.

"Every city has these problems."

She points to statistics from Peel Regional Police that suggest most serious crimes in downtown Brampton decreased between June of 2018 and July of 2019.

Brampton and Peel Region Coun. Martin Medeiros says that while he'd like to see increased security in the downtown core, he also wants city staff to come up with an outreach strategy aimed at people struggling with homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues. (Martin Medeiros)

But Martin Medeiros, a Brampton city councillor who also chairs Peel Region's human services committee, says the city has heard from residents who don't feel safe downtown. And he says that's having an impact on businesses.

"We've heard from our businesses some of the struggles we're having with the downtown, with increased vagrancy, with increased — anecdotally  — crime, and this is a condition that's been ongoing for several years," he said.

"I've also been personally concerned about some of the rhetoric that's come out of residents who want to come downtown for entertainment," he said. "They don't feel comfortable with what they see."

What they're seeing, he says, is people under the influence of alcohol and drugs, or people who are homeless.

Letitia Leid, who owns the I Am Beauty salon on Garden Square, says while she sometimes feels unsafe, she'd like to see more done to help homeless people who frequent the downtown core. (Michael Aitkens/CBC)

In Garden Square, I Am Beauty salon owner Letitia Leid echoes those security concerns. 

"It's pretty dangerous walking home at night," she said. "A lot of riff-raff have been hanging around more."

But rather than blaming the homeless, Leid says more needs to be done to help them — a goal that's shared by Medeiros.

He says that while he wants to see better security downtown, that alone won't solve the problem. 

"It's not just a matter of displacing these homeless people," he said. "They need help and they need supports, so we're trying to go about this in a thoughtful manner."

Homeless people seek shelter under a railway overpass in downtown Brampton. (Michael Aitkens/CBC)

Two weeks ago, Medeiros shepherded a motion through Peel Region council that calls on staff to look into a range of solutions, from an increased police presence to much more robust social supports for those suffering from addiction or mental health issues.

That report is due to be completed by mid-November.

Medeiros points to Statistics Canada numbers that show Brampton's population was about 600,000 in 2016, and rising. Everyone who spoke with CBC Toronto — politicians, business leaders and social support workers — put the city's 2019 population at more than 700,000.

Ted Brown, who runs Regeneration, a drop-in centre and meal provider in downtown Brampton, says people who have reservations about the homeless should come to his centre and speak to them. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Statscan says Brampton is the second fastest growing city in the country, among major population centres. 

"We have 40 people every day that choose Brampton," Medeiros said, "and with it comes big-city problems."

The first-ever homeless survey conducted by Peel Region was done one April night in 2018. It showed more than 900 people were classified as homeless, but it's not clear how many of them lived in Brampton.

The next Peel-wide survey isn't scheduled to happen until some time next year.

But at the Regeneration drop-in centre in downtown Brampton, executive director Ted Brown knows first-hand that the number is growing, and growing fast.

Thousands of meals a year

His centre provides the homeless with counsellors who specialize in addiction, mental health and housing. It also offers regular meals.

"We're on target to serve 63,000 meals this year," he said. "I started eight years ago and we were somewhere around 35,000 meals and we're up 10 per cent this year in the number of meals we're serving."

Brown has invited local business owners who are concerned about the homeless population to visit his centre and hear their stories. (Mike Smee/CBC)

Brown says the increased number of homeless people can be blamed at least in part on what he sees as a lack of affordable housing in the city. He says the number of new housing options in downtown Brampton has not kept pace with the spike in population.

"We have zero per cent housing available," he said.

"There might be some issues around people sleeping in the streets. That has increased, because there's a lack of affordable housing."

He also says there's an increase in shop owners "complaining that people might be peeing on their property" but that's because "there is a lack of bathrooms where people feel welcome."

One of the homeless people roaming downtown Brampton is Kemmy King. He's been without a home for about a month now, he says, but it's not for lack of money.

Pulling out a wad of $50 bills, he insists he can afford accommodation, but nothing is vacant.

"There is one shelter in Brampton. I've gone to every agency and said I'm looking for a place. I have money in my pocket," he said. But so far, he says, he's had to seek shelter in a park.

Kemmy King, one of an estimated 900 homeless people in Peel Region, says he could afford accommodation, but none is available. He's been living in a park. (Michael Aitkens/CBC)

"It's kind of sad ... I don't see anybody really doing anything."

Brown says he wishes business owners who complain about the homeless would visit his centre.

"There's a lot of fear in people and misunderstanding. Every one of these people has a story to tell. And it's taking time out of our busy lives to get to know the stories of the people," he said.

"Even the prostitute that's working on the street — what's her story? What's the story of the drunk, and why is that guy sleeping on the street?" he asked. 

"But what a lot of people want to do is just say we need to get rid of these people. We're in danger of becoming a very dysfunctional city. And I would encourage any business owner to come and see what we do. 

"We are not a scary place."

Back at Garden Square, Kemmy King says he's becoming worried that he'll be homeless for a long time to come. He says it rained one night recently and he had to go to a laundromat to dry out.

"I wish I could find a place," he said. "Winter is coming."

About the Author

Michael Smee

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Michael Smee has worked in print, radio, TV and online journalism for many years. You can reach him at michael.smee@cbc.ca

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