When it comes to a crisis affecting not only the Sault, but Northern Ontario and across the country, finger pointing appears to be the norm when it comes to Mental Health, Addictions and Homelessness.
Municipalities are blaming the Province for a lack of funding and resources. The Province is looking to the Feds for funding and guidance. Yet each day brings more overdoses, deaths and crime throughout our communities, with very few of us left unaffected.
In part one of our investigative series, we reached out to Brian Bigger, Mayor of Sudbury to see both how and what they are doing at the municipal level in reaction to this crisis as well as what assistance they may be receiving from other levels of government.
In Bigger’s home town, in addition to commitments from the Province, they decided that they needed to take action at a municipal level years ago. “We are a compassionate community,” is the description Mayor Bigger used for his Northern Ontario city just 3 hours east of the Sault.
His city, with a population of just over 150,000, spends between 4.5 million and 11 million municipal dollars per year addressingto mental health, addiction and homelessness. That is equivalent to 1-3 percent of their overall budget.
“We’ve been working really hard on all of those topics for a number of years. We started by donating a building that had been appraised for a million dollars,” stated Bigger. “we donated it to Canadian Mental Health Association, [and] worked with the province and the federal government at the time to get a full service, street shelter in operation.”
That shelter has been in full swing since November of 2019.
“In Sudbury, specifically, our city council has decided we can no longer wait for funding from federal and provincial governments,” stated Bigger. “So what we have done is we have developed business cases. And last year, during the budget process, we approved funding for both, [including] a supervised consumption site. And we provided both $800,000 and capital dollars out of our municipal funds for that, and allowed for up to $1.1 million of operating funds for [the] supervised consumption site.”
He says the site is properly zoned and ready to go, they are just awaiting the exemption from the Federal Government. “If we were to get an exemption from the Federal Government next week for our supervised consumption site, in March, we would be open.”
Sudbury could potentially add another 10 million to the capital and operating budget this year for other projects to fight the epidemic in their city.
In comparison, 1-3% of the City of Sault Ste. Marie’s overall budget would equal between $1.2 million and $3.6 million. There is no line in the budget specifically for this issue in Sault Ste. Marie.
When a viewer submitted question related to these issues was presented to Sault Mayor, Christian Provenzano, during a Budget 2022 Town Hall interview hosted by SaultOnline/ONNtv, a few weeks ago, he responded, “I really want to call on our provincial government to properly address and fund the healthcare system so we have the proper care in place, so that people who are suffering from mental health and addiction challenges can get the help that they need.”
“We really need the help from our municipal provincial partners who have jurisdiction over health care, who have legal jurisdiction over health care and have the funding for health care.”, stated Provenzano during the Town Hall.
When we raised the concern to Bigger, that Sault Ste. Marie isn’t shovel ready and doesn’t seem to have invested anywhere near the amount per capita Sudbury has from its budget towards these issues, he suggested some money for treatment may be available through our District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board (DSSAB).
We spoke briefly with DSSAB CEO, Mike Nadeau, who says they spend in excess of $2 million dollars a year to aid in homelessness and addictions in Sault Ste. Marie from their nearly $75 million dollar budget. If you do the math, The City of Sault Ste. Marie is responsible for approximately 23 percent of the DSSAB’s budget, which amounts to about $460,000 dollars of the 2 million DSSAB spends on the issue.
Bigger also lays some of the issues directly at the feet of Bill C-75. He says some of the people who might benefit from being arrested and sent to a rehab facility are instead being released due to the new legislation.
The Ontario Medical Association has announced a plan which calls on the province to address this issue among others. Going forward, Bigger said his city will be looking at this plan in-depth.
On Monday, October 25th, Addictions and Mental Health Advocates, along with up to 100 other individuals lined up at City Hall to protest homelessness, mental health and addiction services in Sault Ste. Marie. Four days later, two Teepee’s as well as multiple tents are now dotting the landscape in front the Ronald A. Irwin Civic Centre with the intention to provide evidence daily that the issues in this City aren’t going away.
In a response to an inquiry with regards to alleged statements made to protestors over the past week, Councillor Lisa Vezeau-Allen stated, “Throughout my time on City Council, I can tell you that there is no single issue that we have collectively spent more time discussing, lobbied more aggressively for support or made an effort to address than the opioid epidemic.”
Despite what clearly appears to be an increasing amount of finger pointing, you only need to glance at the daily headlines on this and from other media outlets to see just how this crisis is affecting us all. At one point over the past month here in Sault Ste. Marie, Addictions and Mental Health Advocates claimed there were 9 sudden deaths within a 10 day span. We are on track to hit around 80 overdose related deaths this year, close to double from last year.
An increase in mental health, drug related and weapons related incidents have been noted by emergency responders. Just last month a young member of the Sault Police Service suffered serious injuries and a 19-year-old man died during an exchange of gun fire. The incident is still under investigation by the Special Investigation Unit.
Best said in a recent statement from Sault Police Services Chief Hugh Stevenson, “We must rally as a community, as people of Sault Ste. Marie and Prince Township, to show empathy to our fellow citizens and help pick them up during their time of need.”
Stay with SaultOnline/ONNTV as we continue to dive into the crisis surrounding mental health, addictions and homelessness in our community.