Cornwall unveils winter housing plan in light of death of camp resident

An eastern Ontario city’s plan to house the homeless this winter has been met with a mixture of relief and regret, less than a week after a woman died at a local encampment.

The city of Cornwall announced Thursday that it will use a former nursing home as a transitional center for housing and support services. The aim is to then move people to more sustainable sites, including a former school that is retrofitted and retrofitted to provide supportive housing units and tiny homes.

The problem of homelessness in Cornwall has become more apparent since the Covid-19 pandemic, with encampments taking hold in multiple locations, most recently at a riverside park where a 67-year-old woman, Diane Hibbert, was found dead in a tent on Sunday morning.

The city says it has been working behind the scenes on solutions to homelessness for months. Hibbert’s death and its timing had a major impact.

Count. Sarah Judd described the news as “painful” and the timing “brutal”, while fellow councilor Claude McIntosh said the death was a “game-changer”.

Mayor Justin Towndale issued a public statement taking personal responsibility as mayor for what happened, while also stating that Hebert refused to assist the city’s Department of Human Services.

“We failed her. I failed her,” Towndale’s statement read.

“Nothing I can say or do will bring back Ms. Hibbert. All I can do is pledge to do better and hope we can avoid a similar tragedy in the future.”

Mayor of Cornwall Justin Towndale, November 2023
Cornwall Mayor Justin Towndale issued a statement earlier this week taking personal responsibility for the woman’s tragic death. (Amadou Barry/Radio-Canada)

Significant increase in the reception center during the day

Taylor Seguin says Cornwall has no overnight shelter for the homeless, which is a shock to people coming from other cities and a factor that has led to encampments.

Seguin is the CEO of Center 105, a day drop-in center and breakfast provider in Cornwall.

He says rising rents in recent years have made it difficult to get affordable homes and that traffic in the center has risen “dramatically”.

Seguin said Hebert’s death was heartbreaking in part because “if our community had acted more quickly, perhaps this could have been avoided.”

Taylor Seguin, 105th, Cornwall, Ontario, November 2023
Taylor Seguin runs a day reception center in Cornwall. (CBC)

The city originally hoped to have the temporary shelter ready by the end of October, Towndale said in his statement. But one site didn’t work out, while the logistics of building the nursing home took some time to work out.

This downtown building will accommodate up to 20 residents and will offer addiction services, mental health support and other wraparound care that the city said is key to helping the homeless.

“Shelter alone is not the answer,” Towndale said in his statement. “We need a more robust plan.”

While the shelter is often viewed as a Band-Aid, “we need some Band-Aids now (because) we are in a really tough situation,” Seguin said.

The list of Cornwall residents either without a home or looking for an affordable home stood at 77 in October 2021, a number that has since increased to 120, the city said Friday.

On the same day, Matthieu Fleury, Cornwall’s chief administrative officer, said at a press conference that the nursing home building would have enough capacity for those still in the camps.

Cornwall homeless camp, November 2023
This is one of the camps that developed in Cornwall. (Camille Cassisi-Monnet/Radio-Canada)

At Point Maleny Park, where Diane Hebert was staying with her daughter, seven people remained as of Friday afternoon, while three were at another encampment nearby, according to the Unity Street Help Association, a local advocacy group.

“They are still mourning here,” association spokeswoman Tina Point said via text message from Point Maleny, whose lands are technically owned by Transport Canada.

Some people may choose to stay in a tent and “we need to respect that choice,” according to a city update posted ahead of the next council meeting on Tuesday.

The larger plan includes sleeping cabins

The city is leasing the nursing home building for at least seven months, possibly longer.

The idea is to eventually move residents into the building the city purchased, the former Vincent Massey Public School in the city’s north end, according to plans unveiled Thursday.

Massey Place will include nine supportive housing units and possibly 20 tiny homes or cabins, although the exact timeline for its opening is unclear.

The building is close to three schools, so if the city continues with that location, it can expect a “significant” decline, McIntosh said.

The city has met with school officials, according to a city update to council members.

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