Fact Check: Municipal Role in COVID-19 Shelter Services
A lively discussion has been playing out on social media about the role of our municipality in the delivery of shelter and support services to the homeless population during the COVID-19 crisis. I would like to set out the facts for the benefit of those who share concern for these vulnerable citizens.
Much of this discussion was initiated by Traci Lockman, of the Fort Frances Family Centre. In a post which she shared in several online groups with vast local readership, Ms. Lockman claimed that “OUR MUNICIPAL LEADERS have turned their back on our homeless and our Community.” She went on to make accusations about the restriction of gathering size to 5 people, to state that our mayor and council have not been protecting the community, and to claim that the Town of Fort Frances is withholding funds it was given to support the homeless population.
None of this was factual, nor a fair reflection of the jurisdiction, ability, or efforts of our council. It is a distraction at a time when we need our community to have confidence in the efforts underway and systems in place to keep everyone safe.
First, contrary to Ms. Lockman’s suggestion, the order restricting gathering size was made by the provincial government, not town council. Municipal governments are created under provincial legislation and are beholden to provincial authority. We cannot change provincial law.
The provincial order does not prohibit the operation of businesses or organizations which the province classified as essential during the pandemic. That list includes organizations “that support the provision of food, shelter, safety or protection and/or social services and other necessities of life to economically disadvantaged and other vulnerable individuals, including … homeless shelters”.
While this would seem to capture the Family Centre, the Family Centre has never secured a license of any kind for its operations. Again, most of the licensing and regulation in question is also administered by the province, not the town. Ms. Lockman now claims that the public health unit has declared her organization “essential”, but it makes little sense that the province would permit organizations that do not meet its standards to carry-on as “essential services” they are not otherwise qualified to deliver under provincial regulations.
In short, these rules are not created by the municipality, and any negative impact they have on the Family Centre – which has snubbed regulation for several years at this point – falls to Ms. Lockman and her counterparts, not to our mayor and council.
Second, Ms. Lockman’s social media campaign disregards the fact that we have a licensed and regulated shelter in the community, in the form of the Out of the Cold Warming Centre. The Warming Centre has the support and direct involvement of the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board (DSSAB). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Warming Centre’s dates of operation have been extended. The Warming Centre is the appropriate organization for donors looking to support our homeless population.
The individuals behind the Warming Centre have gone to great lengths to provide a service with all the appropriate licensing and compliance standards in place. The rules for shelters and related services are in place to protect both the vulnerable users of these services and those who work or volunteer at them. There are standards for the physical layout of the premises, vulnerable sector checks for staff, and appropriate training, formal policies and safety protocols, and privacy.
In comparison, it is unclear whether the Family Centre is even incorporated, can issue receipts on its own behalf for donations, or carries sufficient insurance. Its volunteers – while committed and well-intentioned – bear personal risk and liability by participating in the delivery of a service without the appropriate safeguards in place. In doing so, they also put the users of their service at risk.
Finally, the funding which has been announced by the province to help the most vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis flows through municipal service managers. The service manager for our municipality is the DSSAB, which is a designation made under provincial legislation.
This means that this work is not squarely within council’s jurisdiction. The Town of Fort Frances has just one seat on the DSSAB board and does not interfere in decisions that are within its mandate. However, the DSSAB is actively engaged in the Emergency Management Committee, which is the body coordinating the Town’s response to the pandemic.
Importantly, although $200 million in provincial funding has been announced, the DSSAB has not yet been informed how much our district will receive or when we can expect to receive these funds, despite requests to the province for that information.
It is unclear whether Ms. Lockman thinks that this funding should be directed to the Family Centre. However, that decision is not up to the municipality, and it is unlikely the province will allow the DSSAB to allocate funding to an unlicensed provider to work with vulnerable people.
All of these facts been made available to Ms. Lockman and her supporters.
In conclusion, I note that Fort Frances’ current council is the most socially-minded one the town has seen in a generation. All members of council have supported or contributed to the Warming Centre. The Family Centre has been provided with the opportunity to send a representative to the Town’s Emergency Management Committee meetings to provide direct input to the COVID-19 response. And the mayor’s state of emergency declaration itself – which was forwarded to the provincial government – also specifically cites our concern for the homeless population.
Our municipal and DSSAB leaders have continually demonstrated their commitment to vulnerable members of our community. It is entirely unhelpful during this crisis for the Family Centre to engage in online misinformation campaigns at a time when all of our local officials are working together to ensure the community has the resources it needs to respond to this crisis.