The backstory behind the encampment at Gore and Albert

People with knowledge of the situation say the shuttering of a problem-plagued Albert Street Street rooming house resulted in displaced people setting up camp in one of the Sault’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods

The Compassion Hub has become a hotbed of activity since a number of people set up an encampment at the corner of Gore Street and Albert Street East over the course of the summer. 

That encampment was removed Thursday, as Sault Ste. Marie Police Service — in conjunction with social services, community outreach, paramedics and the city’s public works department — engaged in what’s been referred to as “clean up” of the encampment, citing “growing concerns about public safety and health for area residents and those in the camp” in a news release issued following the much-talked-about removal.     

“They come over to eat every day, they come over for a lot of different things,” said Donna DeSimon, president of Addiction and Mental Health Advocates, the group responsible for the Compassion Hub on Gore Street. “We’re trying to find them housing. We have people working with them come in. We have different counsellors that come in and see them.

“They’re here all the time.”

The regular Sunday night dinners hosted by DeSimon’s grassroots group have been seeing more and more people show up for a meal in the past few weeks as a result of the encampment.

This past Sunday, the food ran out in just 40 minutes.  

“Now we can’t keep up with it. We just can’t,” DeSimon said of the demand for food at the Compassion Hub. “It’s next to impossible.”

DeSimon says the closure of the multi-residential property at 314 Albert Street East last month ultimately led to the encampment being set up on the corner of Gore and Albert.

The property was the subject of a SooToday exclusive earlier this year, revealing that Jim Brogno — the operator of a numbered company listed as the property holder — was slapped with $120,000 in fines this past February for various Ontario Fire Code Offences related to the building. The local Provincial Offences office has confirmed that Brogno’s company has yet to pay the fines.  

According to an inspection order affixed to the front of the Albert Street structure, the property posed “serious life safety issues” due to serious damage to hot water tanks powered by natural gas and heavily damaged or removed copper wiring and piping. 

Another order instructed property owner Jim Brogno to secure the vacant building following a July 12 review of the property by a city bylaw officer. 

A notice on the front of the building also indicates that an assistant to the Ontario Fire Marshal entered the property July 22 with utility providers, in accordance with the Fire Prevention and Protection Act, in order to cut off power, water and natural gas services due to “open end and live wiring, natural gas appliance venting into the structure and constant water pouring throughout the structure.”

Addiction and Mental Health Advocates has been busy dealing with the “aftermath” of people living at the rooming house being displaced, DeSimon says. 

“When they closed the building…there are people that we had not seen before that we are seeing now,” DeSimon said. “It just goes to tell you there’s more on the street now than there were before.”

That influx of people to the corner, she adds, has also stopped Addictions and Mental Health Advocates from moving into its new location – the former site of the Neighbourhood Resource Centre, a Gore Street drop-in centre that was permanently closed in 2020 due to violence, theft, open drug usage and issues with the building itself.   

“Now what’s happened since they’ve been across the street at the corner, unfortunately, they have been breaking into the resource centre…and they’ve been squatting in there,” said DeSimon. “There was even a tent on the roof.

“We were supposed to move across the street — we were going to take over the resource centre, but it’s wrecked. There’s been squatters in there, they took out pipe apparently. So, it’s not going to be ready. We were supposed to move in at the end of this month. Now we can’t.”

The chief executive officer of the District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board says an outreach team has been going to the site daily to advise people camped out on the corner of Gore and Albert of the services available to them. This includes encouraging them to relocate to shelters at Verdi Hall and Pauline’s Place. They are also encouraged to engage in services and complete the homeless waitlist application in order to secure stable housing.

“We can’t mandate whether people engage in the services or not,” said Mike Nadeau, speaking with SooToday Friday. “Our job as a social services agency is to make sure that the community members are aware of what services are available for them.”

Three years ago there were 14 beds at the men’s shelter. Now, Nadeau says, there are 40 beds.

But the demand keeps growing.   

“There’s a lot of pressure on the shelter system right now,” he said.

In surveying people at the encampment, social services discovered that not all people living there were homeless.   

“We found out that about 50 per cent of the people actually had a place to go. It may have been a friend’s place, it may have been co-rooming or some place — but not everybody was classified as homeless,” Nadeau said. 

The social services CEO says the demand for affordable housing in the Sault is “unparalleled.” 

“The supply is reducing — there have been a lot of out-of-town investments, and we’re told some of those properties are sitting vacant. There’s a huge need for affordable housing in our community,” said Nadeau. “There’s a strategy we’re trying to develop, but we also need supports. Our health partners are great partners, but they need additional resources to supply those supports.” 

Ward 2 councillor and social services board chair Luke Dufour says the removal of the encampment, which was situated in his ward, was never intended to be a solution in the first place.  

“I think it’s really important when you have things like this happen to acknowledge to the community that what happened there wasn’t a solution,” said Dufour, speaking with SooToday Friday. “We have systemic problems in Sault Ste. Marie with the availability of necessary mental healthcare services, supportive housing, deeply affordable housing — those are the solutions to these problems.”

Dufour agrees that most of the people spending their days on the corner of Gore and Albert were previously residing at 314 Albert Street East before it was shuttered in June.

“This is kind of a window into an ecosystem of the issues that we’re seeing on the streets of Sault Ste. Marie — folks are living in deeply substandard, unsafe, unsanitary buildings,” he said.

Dufour says that social services deployed its homelessness prevention team to 314 Albert Street East, which was on hand right up until the people residing there were displaced. 

The homelessness prevention team then followed the group of people — DeSimon estimates there were nearly 40 people living at the Albert Street rooming house — to the corner of Gore and Albert. 

“It’s a real challenge, so when you see things like the big image of public works taking stuff down for health and safety reasons, it’s easy to miss all the stuff in the background,” Dufour said.

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