Cobourg’s crime crisis: Open-air drug use and homeless encampment heighten community concerns

Cobourg’s crime crisis: Open-air drug use and homeless encampment heighten community concerns

The Town of Cobourg, once coined ‘Ontario’s Feel Good Town,’ has become a site of much local contention as it grapples with alarming increases in crime, open-air drug use, and homelessness.

In an attempt to address the burgeoning crisis, the upper-tier municipality Northumberland County, responsible for overseeing social services in the region, has acquired a downtown building to offer a 35-bed “low-barrier” shelter space.

The unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats at Northumberland County purchased the former nursing home at 310 Division Street without community consultation or feedback from taxpayers. The new building will replace the existing shelter, Transition House, located a few steps away on Chapel Street.

Safety concerns in the vicinity of Transition House have persisted since at least 2019, with Cobourg experiencing a proliferation of violent crime, up over 41% since 2021.

Bank vestibules in the downtown core have shuttered access after hours due to rising incidents of misuse of the space, including overdoses and deaths.

“We found a needle on College [Street],” says one Cobourg resident. “We had a drug house two doors down from us so it was constant. We’ve had more than a few adventures. It’s a sad situation and it’s only going to get worse.”

“I don’t come down [to the bank] unless my husband is in the car,” a long-time Cobourg resident shares. “I spoke to the councillor and he said that they’re doing what they can but they can’t do too much because the street people have their rights just the same as we do.”

“It’s really scary because Cobourg’s getting so bad… We have a scanner that we hear of all these overdoses. It’s too bad because it’s just a beautiful town. I’ve been in Cobourg for over fifty years, I’ve raised my family here, I felt safe, but now I don’t.”

Cobourg Police Chief VandeGraaf reassured concerned residents, stating, “There is a difference between feeling unsafe and being unnerved.” Many residents became unnerved when a harm reduction and safe supply advocacy group called Moms Stop The Harms began running an unsanctioned overdose prevention site (UOPS) every Friday night since March 2022.

The site is coordinated by self-described abolitionist Melissa (Missy) McLean, a social worker, and the Ontario director for Moms Stop the Harms (MSTH) – a primarily government-funded harm reduction and safe supply advocacy group. McLean also works as the research project lead at the Northumberland Community Legal Centre.

MTSH talks about stopping the stigma, but nothing quite says stigma like using and promoting illicit drugs behind bushes in a park after dark.

The shuttering of publicly funded outbuildings, such as the Albert Street washroom and warm room, and the dismantling of a taxpayer-funded bus shelter steps away from the UOPS, serve as a constant reminder of the issues plaguing Cobourg’s downtown.

“It’s such a shame to have that building in place and not have people able to use it,” shares one taxpayer.

Meanwhile, a growing homeless encampment at the former Brookside Youth Detention Center, a few kilometres away, is the most visible display of homelessness in the once sleepy small-town community.

Many residents of the encampment say they were displaced by the shuttering of a squalor-laden home at 413 Division Street after the health unit, Town of Cobourg, and other “partner agencies” deemed it unsafe following a stabbing at the known drug house just days prior.

They temporarily took up residence on the prime beachfront shores of Lake Ontario in Cobourg’s east end, which was then the subject of a shooting before being disbanded by the Town. The encampment moved a few times before settling on provincial territory and continues to grow, with assistance from a GoFundMe page organized by Jenni Frenke and Tony Mercieca.

Further supported by the ‘radically inclusive’ advocacy group and government-funded Greenwood Coalition, one encampment resident who lives in the largest tent available with his girlfriend describes the duo as the “mom and dad” of the encampment.

When asked about possible solutions, he says that there are none. “We’re just trying to stay warm.”

When asked about existing shelter spaces and why those aren’t being utilized, “dad” says that those are “only for some people and they only have 12 shelter spaces – I have 25 people here.”

Although everyone at the encampment is an adult, ‘dad’ shares that “they don’t advocate for themselves and I do.”

He names outreach for sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, harm reduction, food, and shelter as ways advocacy takes place in this hierarchy situation. 

But what about getting clean?

“Sure,” he says. “That’s part of Greenwood’s stuff, is harm reduction and getting clean, yeah. Not everyone here is an addict; that’s a very big misconception… To say that this is a bad place because of drug addicts is a hate crime.”

A woman living in another tent expressed concerns about the lack of privacy in existing shelter spaces. “There are rules that don’t accommodate other people, like if you work nights. You can’t work nights if you’re in the shelter because of the curfew… it’s easier to go on your own.”

She says that there is a need for more affordable housing. “It’s so tight-packed right now and the list is a 5-10 year wait.” While housing would help provide the stability to work and get back on her feet, she is not working at the moment to focus on herself.

One local resident says that they became increasingly concerned about the encampment after they began noticing pillaging in the yards in the area.

“If that money was shifted over to resources for rehab centres for the drug addicts, that would be much better bang for our buck because we need to reintegrate people into society.”

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