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City exploring using old UCN building to more safely house homeless people during pandemic

Arresting people for loitering near store entrances is neither feasible nor the right approach, says mayor
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The City of Thompson says it is working on solutions to public intoxication and the gathering of groups of people in the City Centre Mall area that does not abide by social distancing recommendations brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a page on its website entitled “Addressing homelessness and alcohol during COVID-19,” the city said it has been discussing the use of provincially owned buildings like the old University College of the North Polaris buildings to provide safer accommodations for homeless people while the pandemic is ongoing. The Thompson Homeless Shelter is currently at capacity most nights and the city has provided the use of the warmup building at the Eastwood outdoor ice rink to accommodate additional people. However, staffing any temporary facility and collecting the necessary equipment will take time, the city says.

The city advised that it is aware of the issue of people gathering on City Centre Mall property, which increased when the new Liquor Mart opened, but says that RCMP and community safety officers (CSOs) couldn’t arrest every person loitering or intoxicated in public even if they wanted to because there is limited space to house prisoners at the RCMP detachment. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the RCMP is attempting not to house prisoners together in the “tank” cells when possible to reduce the possibility of exposure to the virus.

Homelessness and alcohol have been a key issue in Thompson for some time,” said Mayor Colleen Smook on the city’s website. “My fellow councillors and I are not blind to the issue. We live in the same community, walk the same streets, and shop at the same grocery stores. To make both our downtown residents and shoppers safe, we need to give the most vulnerable of us more resources. We cannot police our way out of this issue. RCMP do not have the space to arrest every individual downtown, even if it was the right thing to do. It isn’t. We’ve been working hard with the province for the last six months to develop a comprehensive long-term plan to address these needs. But these plans take time to implement. They were not designed to cope with a pandemic. We are at the table daily with the province, federal government and local partners to lead in addressing the critical state we are now facing, and all of our plans are being accelerated to respond to the community’s needs.”

The city says that calls for service to the RCMP have gone up 12 per cent over the first three months of 2020 compared to last year.

Intoxicated persons and creating a disturbance calls were up 34 per cent over the first two months of the year, according to a municipal policing report the RCMP provided at the last city public safety committee on March 12.

“That’s probably our biggest increasing type of crime,” said Thompson RCMP Staff Sgt. Chris Hastie at that meeting.

 Through the first two months of 2019, there were 658 public disorder calls, while in January and February of this year, there were 924.

“There’s been a notable increase since last January in the number of intoxicated person/disturbance complaints,” said Hastie at the public safety committee in February – an average of 6.5 more calls per day. “The volume of intoxicated person/disturbance complaints has gone up a lot over the last year.”

He attributed much of the increase to the relocation of the Liquor Mart, which has led to more calls for service from mall security.

“That’s why it’s generating all the dispatches,” Hastie said in February. “It’s our new downtown area, that area there.”

The city also has only three community safety officers on staff right now and they don’t work Sunday or Monday.

“We don’t have enough and could use more,” Thompson Fire & Emergency Services Chief Mike Bourgon said at the March public safety committee meeting.

When the CSO program was launched in 2015, the provincial  government covered about half of its costs and their were eight officers in total. As the province reduced the amount it contributed to the program, the city reduced the maximum number of officers to four.