NORTH BAY — When Shane Moyer found himself back on the street after being evicted on September 18, it didn’t take long for him to make his voice heard. Determined to get shelter space for himself and his friends, Moyer started camping out in front of North Bay’s city hall — and 10 others joined him.
Mark King, city councillor and chair of the District of Nipissing Social Services Administration Board, met with Moyer and the group to discuss their options. A week later, they agreed to leave before bylaw enforcement was called in. “Everybody had no choice but to stop and pay attention to me,” says Moyer.
Since then, Moyer has sparked discussion in local media and the community about homelessness, turning himself into a public figure as COVID-19 continues to strain the town’s network of social services. Activists such as Moyer and grassroots initiatives such as HOPE’s Kitchen and Boots on the Ground have attempted to fill the gaps registered charities can’t. Although they lack charity status and a formal structure to receive public funding, they’ve become part of the landscape of local social services, which have been overwhelmed by demand.
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In 2018, 182 people in the city of roughly 51,000 were counted as homeless; by 2020, that number had increased to 254. The current low-barrier shelter, which was built by the city and is run by Nipissing Mental Health Housing Support Services, can hold 22 people. The North Bay Crisis Centre, a co-ed shelter, decreased its capacity from 19 beds to 12 to accommodate physical distancing and has formed partnerships with hotels for overflow. Currently, it has 39 clients. The hotels are “supposed to be a stopgap,” says executive director Sue Reannard. “But because we’re having so many people come through, the hotel stays are getting longer.”
Even before he was evicted, Moyer had been involved in ad hoc outreach, through a small group he calls Nighthawks. Throughout the day, he travels around town, talking to other homeless people, cleaning up needles and garbage, and checking in on various camps that have arisen throughout the city. “I didn’t have any help when I was out on the street,” he says. “So that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
On this trip in late October, Moyer and some volunteers come across Nancy Couchie, who says she’s been without a home since February. Her tent is falling apart, and Moyer and his volunteers tell her they’ll get her a new one (they eventually do). Couchie spent time in the low-barrier shelter’s previous location but says she didn’t appreciate the treatment she received from staff. She says she is still mourning the loss of her friend, Tina Kioke, who died of an overdose in April, several weeks after having been asked to leave the shelter for arguing, according to Couchie. The experience of being kicked out of a shelter, Couchie says, is humiliating and traumatic: “Something goes: it’s like you don’t want to be there. There’s something ugly about that place.”
In addition to his outreach work, Moyer continues to advocate for the homeless: he organized a demonstration march from the office of MP Anthony Rota to Minister Vic Fedeli’s office and continues to demand transitional housing. While meeting with demonstrators at the march, Fedeli announced $4.25 million in funding through the second round of the Social Services Relief Fund. “There’s tremendous work yet to be done,” Fedeli says. But “they asked for that money and we delivered that money.”
King says that the priority for this funding will be to establish new transitional-housing units. He hopes that 16 units at the former OPP building next to the shelter will be running by December and that another 20 modular-housing units will be ready by spring 2021. He’s paid close attention to Moyer’s concerns, he says, and admires him for speaking out: “Shane highlighted the issue, which, good for him. I think he probably has some issues. But he understands that the answer isn’t just a roof over your head. The issue is: How do you provide support to these people?”
Moyer’s methods, though, have inspired criticism, and he has embroiled himself in conflicts with local organizations. He says he was banned from Gathering Place, the city’s main soup kitchen, after claiming on social media that volunteers were taking food from clients’ plates. Executive director Dennis Chippa denies Moyer’s allegations about the food and about the alleged banishment: “Mr. Moyer was asked to leave when he was creating a disturbance in the patio area and has decided he’s been banned. We don’t ban people here. People are fed, regardless of what they do.” Chippa adds that Moyer has yet to speak with him personally about the situation, and expresses concern that Moyer posted such allegations on social media without first seeking clarification. “He is, to be very honest with you, making some pretty dangerous allegations,” he says.
Since leaving Gathering Place, Moyer has been volunteering at HOPE’s Kitchen, a restaurant that turned itself into a soup kitchen at the onset of the pandemic. While co-owner Katie Valiquette says she and Moyer have their differences, she appreciates his advocacy on behalf of a community with no direct public voice. “I don’t always agree with his approach,” she says, noting that his original plans for a demonstration included blocking a road. “But it’s great, what he’s doing.” Her organization, she says, is trying to fill gaps in the local delivery of social services — the goal is eventually to register it as a non-profit or charity. “At this point, I don’t care about the protocols anymore,” she says. “At what point do we let legislation dictate our moral code?”
King says he recognizes the role played by such groups as HOPE’s Kitchen, Nighthawks, and Boots on the Ground, which also conducts outreach work and needle pickups. “They provide support for these people. I think they’re important, without question,” King says, adding, though that “to suggest that we actually could provide funding to all these organizations would be a stretch. If they’re validated, then certainly that would be something we could look at.”
Municipalities like North Bay and the surrounding towns, he says, cannot cover these costs, and they have submitted resolutions to DNSSAB to limit its levy increases. “The concern is that the responsibility is all of a sudden going to get thrown on the municipality.”
As of this past weekend, Moyer is once again camping at city hall: he says that two people were refused entry by the low-barrier shelter and that he received a 24-hour ban. “What I do know is we were told that no one would be refused,” he told TVO.org.
According to King, though, Moyer was banned for videotaping in the shelter, something that’s considered a breach of privacy. The two people who’d been refused entry came with dogs, he says, and the shelter cannot accommodate animals: “The thing that needs to be recognized is there are support systems in place for these people. But, like everyone else, they have to abide by the rules.”
As for Moyer’s return to protest, “People can’t be sleeping on city-hall property,” says King. “As a city councillor — and I’ve said this to Shane before — that’s just not a good thing to do. There are no washroom facilities there.”
King says he’s now beginning to lose patience with Moyer: “He just does not want to seem to abide by the rules. If he doesn’t abide by the rules, there just won’t be a place for him to stay.”
But Moyer currently has no plans to leave: “I am in for the long haul, until we get a sit-in with Charlie Angus and Victor Fedeli.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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