While moving the location of two benches is being condemned by the Homeless Coalition, the Downtown Timmins BIA says it is being sensitive to the needs of people.
Earlier this week, the benches that were just north of the intersection of Pine Street South and Third Avenue were relocated to outside the Canada Pension building on Third Avenue.
After learning that the benches were moved from outside the bank, the Homeless Coalition of Timmins (HCT) posted on its Facebook page that it “condemns this move by the City of Timmins. Public space should be enjoyed by all people and not just by those who fit a certain norm.”
Downtown BIA executive director Noella Rinaldo said there have been concerns raised about “really aggressive panhandling” that was intimidating people at the corner.
“Moving the benches around to disperse aggressive panhandling does not by any means say that we’re not sensitive to the people and what they need,” she said.
Jason Sereda is the HCT chair and is also seeking one of the Ward 5 councillor seats in the upcoming municipal election.
“I’ve been advocating for the use of public space and for the rights of people who are homeless for some time now,” he said. “Through that I’ve had lots of discussions and I’ve heard complaints from people about safety in the downtown. Part of that was that they were considering removing the benches and just making it harder for people to hang out, get rid of the loitering problem.”
He said he’s “taken aback” by the “extreme measure.”
“It moves the problem a little bit farther down the road, but it does nothing to address any of the safety concerns that I’ve heard,” he said.
He also believes the move is reflective of a broader strategy seen in other cities where the use of public space is limited or designed in a way that negatively affects homeless people.
To explain, he points out a no loitering sign on a fenced-in garden, which he says was put up so people can’t sit on the curb.
“Or removing these benches, it removes a place for people to sit. That definitely targets people who have nowhere else to go,” he said.
Ultimately, he wants to see the benches put back on Pine Street South.
“A second solution is start having real conversations about what needs to change in the downtown, how can we better address homelessness, why is Living Space only open during the night and not during the day? It makes no sense, we need to have real conversations about the real root issues. This is a just a symptom of poverty,” he said.
Rinaldo said her group regularly hands out water and information cards.
“We know the homeless in the downtown, we see them every day, we know them by name. We know who has the addictions, who has mental health problems,” she said. “We’re the ones that see them on a day-to-day basis and take care of them, so I find it hard and very insulting when people say that we’re kicking them out of the downtown. By no means, we’re the ones working with TPS and with the social services and the health services to try to help these people…to have a better life and to try to see where they have to go next to improve their life and improve their situations.”
Even though the BIA is doing its best to help, she said there are rules.
People can’t drink in public or be intoxicated, and they can’t aggressively panhandle.
While Sereda said moving the benches is a good opportunity to push forward a discussion, right now the BIA doesn’t have a seat at the HCT table.
“The terms of reference for the HCT discusses having private business represented, but we have not recruited anyone specifically from the BIA,” he wrote. “We would welcome them if they would like to send a representative, and the existing HCT membership will vote on approving them joining. As we are a new group we have focused on recruiting primarily service providers to start.”