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Toronto Neighbours of David Busby Centre in Barrie petition for 100-foot fence to insulate them from drug users

Police officer, Constable Hayes speaks with people outside of the David Busby Centre on McDonald Street, in Barrie on June 13, 2019.

A campaign by residents to put up a big fence alongside a centre for the homeless and addicted here is highlighting the tensions in many Canadian communities about how to cope with the nationwide opioids crisis.

Neighbours of the David Busby Centre have petitioned for a 100-foot-long, eight-foot-high fence that would help insulate them from the troubles that spill onto their once-peaceful street, from loud swearing and open drug use to littering and public urination. People who use the centre say a fence would only cage them in and cover up the city’s scars.

A pleasant, generally prosperous community of 150,000 about 100 kilometres north of Toronto, Barrie has been reeling from the opioids crisis. The latest figures show that in the first eight months of 2018, it had the second-highest rate of hospital visits for opioid overdose among Ontario cities, trailing only St. Catharines.

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Advocates for drug users want the city to open a facility where people could take their drugs in safety, with help at hand in case they overdose. Many residents and business owners say the site would only draw more drug users to the city’s downtown, which already has clinics and shelters.

Conflicts such as this are breaking out across the country as authorities respond to the crisis. The number of fatal overdoses has been mounting steadily: from 3,017 in 2016 to 4,100 in 2017 and 4,460 in 2018.

In hard-hit small Ontario cities such as Barrie, Oshawa, Brantford, Guelph and Windsor, the tension is especially acute. Health officials say services for marginalized people should be near where they live, which is usually in the old downtowns, where they can still find cheap rooms and a place to eat. Residents often call the services a magnet for troublemakers.

Barrie is typical. Its historic downtown on the western arm of Lake Simcoe has been enjoying a revival, with new coffee shops and boutiques and a spruced-up waterfront drawing visitors to boat, fish, stroll and cycle.

But its troubles are in plain sight. On Wednesday afternoon, a young man sitting outside the public library with a black eye and a bloody cut on his temple pulled a T-shirt over his head and drew on a glass crack pipe, then expelled a cloud of smoke. To prevent drug use inside, the library requires visitors to ask a staff member to buzz them in to the washrooms.

The co-owner of a local tattoo parlour, Chris Scaglione, says he is losing business because people “zonked out of their minds are walking around downtown.” The city “would rather just turn a blind eye than do anything.” A safe-consumption site, he says, would just make things worse.

The dispute over the fence has brought feelings out in the open. The Busby centre’s services include a drop-in program, a daily breakfast and intake for overnight shelter in the winter. Visitors go in and out the side entrance, sit at a picnic bench or just hang around on a scruffy patch of lawn and dirt. Staffers often emerge to check on them or just chat.

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Neighbours say there is trouble around the clock outside the building at 88 Mulcaster St., including sex acts on the lawn and screaming matches in the night. Three men sitting on the stoop of a rooming house across the street on Wednesday afternoon said they had just seen a teenaged girl try to throw herself in front of a moving car.

Judy Massio, 64, a teacher at a local college, said she was kept awake one recent night by a woman’s wailing. She sympathizes with the visitors – “they’re human beings and I care for them” – but she doesn’t think they are getting the help they need.

Anne-Marie Scola, 33, says she is afraid to let her eight-year-old son play outside. She says her job is to protect her child from bad things, but now “the bads of the world have showed up on our doorstep.”

Long-time resident Neil Little, 67, is leading the fight for the fence. He circulated the petition and took it to a city council committee last month. A retired hair stylist who raised five children across the road, he says his neighbourhood is “a living hell” because of the behaviour of the centre’s visitors. “We have to live their life,” he says. “Our lives have been robbed.”

Mr. Little insists a fence would be a win-win, giving the centre’s visitors more privacy and the neighbours some peace. Visitors who stopped outside to talk saw things differently.

Cathie Noble, 45, said a fence would mean “you’re just shutting us all in.” A heavy drinker, she said she was living in a tent because she had nowhere else to go. She wiped away tears as she talked about how the centre’s staff helped her, even letting her in at 10:30 one night for a coffee when she was desperate.

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Chantelle Stock, 29, said the centre helped her find an apartment after years of off-and-on homelessness. A mother of five, she said she had been a heroin user from the ages of 11 to 14. She said a fence would be an insult to Norah Busby, the wife of the centre’s founder, Anglican minister David Busby, and a kind of matriarch of the place. She died in 2017. “This is her legacy,” Ms. Stock said, “and to close it in, that would be dishonouring her and her husband’s memory.”

The Busby’s executive director, Sara Peddle, says the centre is working with the city and the landlord on a solution – perhaps not a solid fence but some kind of barrier that would give visitors more privacy and space.

But she says she is troubled by the talk about homeless and addicted people on the street. “They are already down and they’re being kicked again, she said.” Even if their behaviour is sometimes disturbing to others, “they are still somebody’s son or daughter.”

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