A local woman has grown frustrated with suspected illegal activity and a lack of action around a homeless encampment in downtown Orillia.
Unhoused individuals have been frequenting 66 Peter St. S., the site of the former Orillia OPP detachment, throughout the summer.
Numerous make-shift structures have been erected at the encampment, and activities on the property have been the subject of numerous complaints to the City of Orillia and the OPP.
The downtown resident, who wished to remain anonymous, says drug dealing, fights, vandalism, and theft have been taking place on and around the encampment in recent weeks.
“People weren't very concerned at first, but immediately there were just little things starting to happen, which could be small thefts in the neighbourhood, a bicycle wheel off of a bike, things like that,” she told OrilliaMatters.
Over the course of the summer, she said the situation has escalated.
“Now … what we have consistently, every night, are large fights, fires burning, (people) running through our neighbourhood with machetes chasing people, brawls on Colborne Street,” she said. “It's typical to see several to 20 people out on the street in the middle of the night, at three or four in the morning, arguing (and) fighting.
“We've had people (overdose) and be laying on the street. These are all people that go to this encampment," the woman added.
Sometime in the past few weeks, she said a small group of people have also started selling drugs on the property. She said one of these individuals approached her recently, offering to sell her fentanyl.
“It's a continual thing that people are walking in and out, purchasing fentanyl, drugs, and leaving,” she said. “Now, people are even driving up in their cars to the fence and buying drugs and leaving.”
Despite discussions with Ward 4 councillors, the mayor’s office and Orillia OPP, she said little action has been taken on the encampment.
“I always get this line that we can't go ahead and make any decisions unless we have a committee meeting and everybody has voted, so that's why they're not changing anything or moving anything or doing anything,” she said.
The police, as well, have been unable to stop the issues at the encampment, she added.
“If they don't start doing something, somebody's going to be dead in this neighbourhood soon, and not some bad fentanyl – it'll be like a stabbing or shooting.”
Earlier this year, city council passed a bylaw that prohibits erecting tents or shelters on city-owned land.
However, due to a legal ruling in the Region of Waterloo, the city cannot evict individuals from encampments on city land unless there is available shelter space within Simcoe County, said the mayor at the time.
The current course of action is to work with community and county partners to assist individuals living in encampments, said Shawn Crawford, the city’s director of legislative, building, parking, and transit services.
“The city’s protocol is to work with community partners, such as The Lighthouse outreach team and the County of Simcoe before taking any enforcement action. City staff has connected with these partners,” he said. “We have received complaints about illegal activity associated with the property and have advised callers to report their concerns to the Ontario Provincial Police."
Crawford said local encampment numbers are similar to what they were in 2022, based on data collected earlier this year.
Despite the efforts at The Lighthouse, which include a community outreach team that was launched earlier this year, executive director Linda Goodall said providing assistance to people can be challenging, nonetheless.
“We always (have) 50 adults and youth. It is very rare that we have a bed available, (unless) somebody just doesn't show up late at night, and it's like that across the county,” Goodall told OrilliaMatters. “We have four outreach workers that go out at a time, and they are always going over and checking them out … to see what they can do to support clean-up and things.
"It's a tough one," she added.
Although the shelter does “occasionally” get people off the streets, Goodall said, it’s quite common for there to be nowhere for people to go. And even if a shelter bed is available somewhere else, she said there can be issues with connecting people with new services elsewhere.
“If they have their psychiatrist, if they have their support workers … in Orillia, how beneficial is it to move them?” she said.
“At the moment, to find out if there's any beds in any other area, you have to call every other shelter, and if you find … there's a bed available, it's hard because the beds are only held for a certain time,” Goodall said. “What the county is looking at doing is … live data (to) be able to see where beds are.”
Despite the challenges, there is some good news moving forward, she said. The shelter has received funding from both the city and the county to keep the Orillia Overnight Warming Centre, at Orillia Community Church, open for more days this winter.
“We are committed to 60 days to be open this winter. For example, last year, I think it was 32 days,” Goodall said. “We are lowering the temperature (threshold for opening) and, depending on extreme weather, if it hasn't reached a certain temperature, you know, we can make that discretion as well.”
In order to solve the encampment issue, however, Goodall said “deeply affordable” housing is required.
Orillia OPP Const. Brett Boniface said the OPP is committed to investigating any calls on encampments in the city. He said the OPP have not received any more calls on encampments this year than they did in 2022.
“We continue to monitor all crime in the city and will respond to calls as they happen,” he told OrilliaMatters. “We do check on the persons that are residing there to make sure that they’re safe and that everyone is following (the law).”
Regarding the Peter Street encampment, Boniface said the OPP is “heavily involved” in the area, "making sure the community is safe and the area is safe.
“We’ll be monitoring and patrolling as much as we can," he added.
For the anonymous resident, however, she said she's upset with the response by the city and the OPP to date, noting a few meals from local churches or non-profits are not enough to help people or rectify the issue.
“More taxpayer money is going to be spent on the health-care system and the hospital … more strain on welfare, more strain on provincial government, municipal (government),” she said. “Wouldn't it just be better to get together – there’s money – and start fixing it now?”