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Thunder Bay’s city council has approved using a parcel of land for a housing project despite deep divisions among residents that exposed issues of race, crime and a growing drug crisis.

Councillors voted late Monday night in favour of a zoning bylaw amendment that would see a 58-bed transitional housing facility, serving mainly homeless Indigenous young people, be built on the north side of the city.

“While tonight we are voting on a zoning amendment, I think it goes much deeper than that,” councillor Kristen Oliver told a packed room. “I see this as a way to create a safe place for youth to grow. A place to live is a human right.”

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The initiative to help homeless youth has sparked fierce debate. Several public meetings have been held this year; on Monday, seating was set up in the building’s downstairs lobby so many of the 80 residents in attendance could watch the proceedings on television screens.

Those against the rezoning told council that their opposition wasn’t racially motivated, but rather they questioned the location of the facility. It would be near two schools and a Boys and Girls Club, they said, and would add to the issues in an area already dealing with crime and drug dealers.

“It’s not a racial issue; it’s a public safety issue,” one resident told council.

Supporters argued that approving the amendment was a way for the city to move forward in helping young Indigenous people.

“This is not just a rezoning application. This is a public good, versus narrow interests,” a resident told council. “And I would ask you to vote in favour of public good. This community needs that kind of signal, not just for ourselves but also for the rest of the country.”

Council had agreed to sell the empty parcel of surplus city land earlier this year to one of the project’s partners, the Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services (OAHS). But council also had to approve zoning before a facility could be built.

Pat Suddaby, the board president at the Boys and Girls Club of Thunder Bay, acknowledged that there’s a need for a transitional housing facility in the city, but he questioned whether the location was appropriate because of its proximity to schools and his organization. Several residents said they worried about the safety of children in the neighbourhood, and were concerned about homeless young people moving into an already vulnerable area of the city.

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Pat Suddaby, the board president at the Boys and Girls Club of Thunder Bay, seen here, questioned whether the location was appropriate because of its proximity to schools and his organization.

David Jackson

Mr. Suddaby also told council on Monday that there was little consultation with neighbouring organizations and residents in the early stages of the project, and there are still many unknowns about the project, including what happens when a person withdraws from the program.

“I can’t say I’m not disappointed," he said on Tuesday, after the motion was passed. “Now we will work with them to make the neighbourhood as safe as possible. That’s all I can hope for.”

Justin Marchand, executive director of OAHS, said the site was chosen because of its proximity to transit, medical services, grocery stores and restaurant. The facility would help young people live independently, but also provide other services, including employment and training and supports for those struggling with addiction.

Mr. Marchand said other places in North America have seen a decline in crime rates as a result of transitional housing, and there has been no significant impact on property values.

In Thunder Bay, a recent federal survey found that more than 470 people were homeless last year, in a city of about 110,000 people. The survey also found that two-thirds of the homeless population were Indigenous. Addiction or substance abuse was the largest contributing factor to their homelessness, it found.

“All you have to do here today is to say yes. Say yes to supporting truth and reconciliation. Say yes to the city’s vision and the city’s housing and homelessness strategy, and say yes to helping your neighbours,” Mr. Marchand told council.

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After the vote, Mr. Marchand said he is hopeful that the housing facility will serve as an opportunity to solve issues around crime, addiction and homelessness that exist in the city.

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