Peterborough Mayor Diane Therrien says she is trying to convene a special council meeting next week to discuss funding for a “safe, accessible indoor space for our unhoused neighbours” this winter, after earlier this week she accused senior city staff of blocking funds for an emergency plan to address homelessness.
“Senior city staff are withholding $$ and preventing us from moving forward with an emergency plan to address the crisis for our unhoused neighbours,” Therrien tweeted Tuesday evening.
Then on Wednesday afternoon, she tweeted once again saying she was “working to convene a special council meeting next week to discuss the plans and funding for safe, accessible indoor space for our unhoused neighbours in the coming months.”
The final regular meeting of the current city council was on September 26. Voters go to the polls to elect the next council on October 24.
Under Ontario’s municipal act, there are restrictions on what actions councils can take during an election period, known as a “lame duck” period. Except in emergency situations, the city cannot make any expenditures over $50,000 during this period, unless already approved in the budget.
Leaked emails show funding dispute
Peterborough Currents has obtained leaked emails showing that city staff recently held discussions with local organizations about providing $200,000 to help provide additional emergency shelter space this winter at the former Trinity United Church, on Reid Street.
But it would be up to council, not staff, to approve the funding, said community services commissioner Sheldon Laidman in one of the leaked emails.
“While I know and understand that an additional shelter may be necessary for this winter, city staff do not have the authority or the direction to enter into any agreement to expand the city’s supported shelter system… without Council approval,” reads the email from Laidman’s City of Peterborough account sent on Friday (Sept. 30).
In the email, sent to organizers of a planned overnight drop-in centre at Trinity, Laidman apologizes for “misspeaking” when discussing potential city funding for the project at a summit on homelessness, mental health and substance use last week.
Laidman was asked at the summit “whether the City could confirm its commitment of $200K to this project to assist in using Trinity church for additional shelter spaces this winter,” he wrote.
Following that discussion, Laidman thought more about the situation and concluded he did not have the power to give out the money, he wrote.
“[I] have reviewed what authority city management staff have during what’s referred to as the ‘lame duck’ council period of the election campaign when there are no council meetings and council itself is limited in its authority to spend money and authorize new projects,” Laidman wrote. “While myself and other senior city staff can authorize the use of available budgeted funds, I do not have the authority to enter into new agreements.”
“I apologize for misspeaking yesterday,” he wrote.
In a reply email also obtained by Currents, the executive director of One City Peterborough told Laidman the “dramatic shift” on the City’s part was “very concerning,” with the cold weather quickly approaching.
“Time is not on our side,” wrote Christian Harvey, who is involved in planning the drop-in centre.
While Laidman said he did not have the authority to expand the shelter system, Harvey said that, while the drop-in centre would have cots, it would not be a formal shelter.
“If the concern is you can’t add shelter beds, then it can be put to rest, these are not shelter beds,” Harvey wrote. “We will not be guaranteeing a bed for anyone, it will be first come first serve. We will not be providing bedding. We will not be providing showers.”
Harvey also asked Laidman to clarify what the City can do to help with an emergency response toward homelessness this winter.
“Each plan we have brought forward has been met with new limitations,” Harvey wrote. “So far in meetings you have stated that private citizens and churches should allow people to tent on their properties. Is there any plan beyond this?”
In a statement, City communications manager Brendan Wedley said “no City representative committed to giving $200,000 for the creation of another shelter or drop-in centre.”
Instead, during a meeting a city representative “mentioned that $200,000 might be available to help fund options for homelessness services over the winter but further conversation with City staff would be required,” Wedley said.
Wedley said council would need to approve spending $200,000 on such a project – “whether it is called an emergency shelter or a drop-in centre.”
Discussions on the project began only recently and so no proposal was brought to council for a vote before its last regularly scheduled meeting on September 26th, Wedley said.
“The proposed program details are not in a state that could be presented to Council at this time,” he said.
Harvey forwarded Laidman’s email and his own reply to dozens of community leaders on Monday, including Mayor Therrien and Peterborough’s medical officer of health, Dr. Thomas Piggott.
Sleeping outdoors a health risk
Piggott had taken to Twitter earlier Monday to express concern about homelessness in the city as temperatures start to dip.
“It is cold in Peterborough. I’m not worried about frost on windshield or garden. I’m worried about shelter space and people sleeping outside because they have nowhere to go. Cold is deadly,” he tweeted.
In a statement to Currents, Piggott said, “collaborative action can prevent a cold weather emergency this winter, but only if we act now.”
Currents reached out to Therrien on Wednesday but did not hear back by publication time. Harvey was not immediately available for an interview.