Speaking in front of hundreds at the Meridian Centre, Mayor Walter Sendzik shared his vision for the city of St. Catharines.
“My goal is to end homelessness,” said the mayor during his annual State of the City address last Thursday. Sendzik hopes to accomplish this through the Compassionate City initiative, which plans to redesign and improve transit, affordable housing options, and how civil servants interact with and serve members of the public, as well as bring about a cultural shift towards compassion within St. Catharines.
The mayor’s goal is certainly ambitious. Niagara Region’s 2013 Housing and Homelessness Action plan demonstrates the magnitude of the problem within the region. It estimates that there are 319 people who are absolutely homeless on any given night. The report mentions its count misses a number of ‘hidden homeless’ who are difficult to quantify.
Additionally, at the time of the report there were 589 homeless people on a waitlist for affordable housing, and at least 1 200 families in the region are dealing with homelessness to some degree. The average wait time for support these individuals experience range from 50 to 300 days. The current overall waitlist for the region’s 8 200 affordable housing units is an astounding 5 800 households, with a wait time of almost double the Ontario average.
While Sendzik’s goal is admirable, the reality of the situation demonstrates that there are significant challenges ahead.
A great deal of the mayor’s address focused on key economic developments within St. Catharines, up-and-coming business leaders and entrepreneurs, and the downtown revitalization. He also recognized the need for a more compassionate and inclusive city culture.
To drive his point across, the mayor described an impactful experience he had last year. After leaving church on Christmas Eve, he noticed a homeless woman sleeping on a bench in the cold, something he said “should never happen, especially on Christmas Eve.”
“That can’t be our community,” he said. “We have to do
a better job.”
To that end, Sendzik also claimed that the Compassionate City project would create more affordable housing for people “on the margins” of society.
Affordable housing is listed as one of the “Priority Issues” on the Compassionate City website, which reads: “A decent, safe and affordable place to call home is critical for mental and physical health, for accessing social services and to be able to return to school or work. Everyone needs a safe place to live.”
“A lot of people are struggling out there,” he said, citing the upward trajectory in housing prices that are “pushing people out of our community.”
“We have to ensure we have a plan so everyone can call St. Catharines ‘home.’”
But not everyone shares the mayor’s views. He recounted a conversation he had with someone about affordable housing where they told him they “don’t want those people in my backyard.”
The mayor argued against this mentality, saying we shouldn’t ignore and push out those on the margins of society, but bring them in so they too can contribute to a better St. Catharines. “They’re just people in our community who need a hand up,” he said. “Once they get it, they will contribute to the
Sendzik talked about a project undertaken last year as part of the Compassionate City initiative, where local artists, many of whom were homeless, were able to publicly display their art at city hall. He said this gave him an opportunity to speak with many of these people about the challenges they face on a day to day basis.
“They feel like they’re invisible,” said Sendzik. “They feel like they don’t matter.
Part of the initiative is ensuring those who work in government, who provide the city’s goods and services, have exposure to those who might not normally have their voices heard, explained the mayor.
“We organized a bus tour that took city hall staff to different parts of our community where homeless folks were living,” said Sendzik when asked about the initial steps taken as part of the initiative. The staff from city hall were able to see firsthand the addiction and mental health issues facing many of those who call St. Catharines home.
The mayor described this as “shining a light” on those who for so long have been “marginalized or largely invisible.”
“The next step is engaging the community to be a part of the compassionate city project. Meaning how can they… embrace the tenets of the Compassionate City, which is care plus action.”
“It’s about showing everyone can have an impact, whether it’s saying ‘hi’ to someone who’s walking down the road, helping someone who you see is in distress, or doing something larger that has a long-term impact on someone’s life,” said Mayor Sendzik.
When asked about how he sees the Compassionate City initiative transforming St. Catharines in the next few years, Mayor Sendzik said: “I think we [will] become much more of a compassionate city, and I think that itself will cascade into how we see ourselves as a community, how we operate as a community, how connected we are as a community.”
“It’s about attracting people to our community because they want to be a part of the compassionate city, they feel included in our city, and that’s the kind of thinking, that’s the kind of cultural shifting that’s taking place that will create a lot more vibrancy, create more opportunity, and that’s an exciting direction that we’re going in.”
“A community is a circle. There’s no one who should be on the outside,” said Sendzik during his closing statements. “What we’re doing is building an inclusive circle, where we don’t tolerate racism, or comments about women or about the LGBT community.”
He continued to speak about how the compassionate city initiative requires not only additional action, but a shift in perspective and within the city’s own culture.
Sendzik also spoke about St. Catharines’ economic well-being to the crowd of over 500 business and community leaders. He specifically mentioned the positive impact of having more Brock students living and shopping downtown.
“They bring a lot of vitality to the downtown core,” said Sendzik. “That wasn’t here a year ago.”
Only time will tell whether the efforts of Mayor Sendzik in solving St. Catharines affordable housing and homelessness challenges prove fruitful. But this winter, some will undoubtedly be sleeping in the cold.