‘We never give up’
Helping the city’s homeless find lodging can sometimes be problematic on both sides
Heather MacEwan sits in her urine-soaked wheelchair asking for help from a stranger.
The 65-year-old woman, of no fixed address, is surrounded by all of her worldly belongings in front of the old W.A. Fisher Auditorium at the former Barrie Central Collegiate in downtown Barrie on Wednesday when a Good Samaritan drops in to check on her.
“I saw her on Sunday and I’ve called the police and the City of Barrie to see what can be done,” said the woman, who asked her name not be used, but added she lives on High Street and was concerned to see the homeless woman in the same spot three days later. “I’m disgusted she’s still here,” she said.
MacEwan says she has been in Barrie since early summer and that she spent “some time” in Hamilton, too.
Her cornflower blue eyes appeal to her listeners, of whom there have been much and many, about her medical needs that rack her short, stout frame that’s curled up sideways in the rickety chair.
Her wish list is long and unwieldy. She wants to use a washroom, badly, but can’t get there on her own in a broken wheelchair.
She says she wants a warm place to stay, but not the hospital because she’s been there and they use bleach which interferes with her breathing.
She wants a wheelchair-accessible place to live, but not near men, smokers, people doing drugs, the list goes on.
She said she has legal issues, complex medical conditions and no family to speak of.
Yet when she does smile, she’s been described as “everybody’s grandmother” as someone who is old, sick and needs a warm place to stay with fall approaching.
“I’ve been accused of declining places, but a lot of places are declining me because they’re not able to take me,” MacEwan said.
MacEwan said both the Women and Children’s Shelter and Elizabeth Fry Society aren’t suitable for her requirements.
A David Busby Street Centre worker, who also refused to give her name, approached MacEwan on Wednesday to offer assistance.
Concerns about contravening the province’s privacy laws lead both Barrie police and the Busby centre’s executive director Sara Peddle to speak mostly hypothetically about homeless people who refuse help.
“We never give up,” Peddle said on Thursday. “Sometimes it looks to the community like nothing ’s being done, but work is being done even if it doesn’t appear to be.”
Peddle said although she can’t speak directly about MacEwan, she would say she presently has a roof over her head.
While technically MacEwan had a roof over her head when she sat under the awning in front of W.A. Fisher Auditorium, she wasn’t there on Thursday.
Stymied by privacy laws, Peddle said the Busby centre works with mental-health providers, social agencies and police under the Collaborate Barrie hub that gathers regularly to discuss urgent social services requirements.
Busby is also working on a Housing First strategy, copied from agencies across Canada, the United States and United Kingdom to find what Peddle calls the “highest acuity individuals” or those most in need, housing, and then directs a case manager to deal specifically with their health and mental-health needs.
“We have 26 people in the program and we’re helping them manage their lives a little better,” she said.
However, part of the difficulty MacEwan faces is that her mentalhealth challenges prevent her from accepting help when it’s offered.
Barrie’s Lucy Pinho, one of its well-known citizens who lived behind the TD Bank on Collier Street on an eight-by-10-foot grate, died Aug. 8, 2014.
Pinho struggled with mentalhealth issues and refused to venture inside buildings and churches (for Barrie’s Out of the Cold program) and chose to sleep outside during the harshest winter months.
She died during the summer, two weeks after a fence was erected to keep her from living on the grate.
Less than a month ago, a 39-yearold woman’s body was discovered at Dyment’s Pond.
Although the exact cause of death was unclear from the post-mortem results released the first week of September, police said her death was not suspicious.
A source who knows a little more about MacEwan’s last few months in Barrie said other impoverished people would “jump at the chance” to have the opportunities presented to MacEwan that she has refused.
Barrie police are also staying mum about how much or often they’ve attended to the senior’s plight.
“I am aware of the situation, but out of respect, privacy and trust concerns for her, I can’t offer you information on what type of involvement police have had with an individual,” said Sgt. Toni Dufour.
Police can enforce trespassing laws and municipal bylaws and intervene under the Canadian Mental Health Act, she said.
“If we need to, we can apprehend a person if they face a safety risk and we believe they are unable to care for themselves,” Dufour said.
But she said police are reluctant to lay charges and force a person to go through the judicial system unless all other options have been exhausted.
“What I can say is that there are many services available in Barrie that offer help to individuals in need, from housing concerns to personal safety issues,” Dufour said.
“Police and human service providers work collaboratively to ensure that people know what is available to them, however it us up to the person to accept it,” she added.
Help could be on the way provincially, but it may arrive too late to help MacEwan.
A private member’s bill was presented at Queen’s Park by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, appealing for a new mental-health and addictions stand-alone ministry.
“It has become clear that the mental-health care needs and the addiction needs of people in the province have not been taken care of,” Horwath said at Queen’s Park earlier this week. “Too many people are falling through the cracks, too many people are in crisis, too many kids are waiting 18 months for treatment.
“It’s not acceptable, and the best way to put that focus in place is to have a separate ministry,” she said.
A frustrated Heather MacEwan, 65, who has been living alone for days outside the former Barrie Central Collegiate in the city’s downtown, says she has no place to go that can accommodate her.
A frustrated Heather MacEwan, who has been living alone for days outside the former Barrie Central Collegiate in the city’s downtown, says she has no place to go that can accommodate her.