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'We're on the cusp of a human health crisis': Council approves emergency safety measures for Rainbow Park

Sarnia City Council special meeting, June 14, 2024.

Fencing, lighting, sanitation and security could soon be implemented at Sarnia’s Rainbow Park after city council voted to allow the Chief Administrative Officer to authorize temporary measures at the site of a controversial and growing homeless encampment.

“We are on the cusp of a human health crisis,” said coun. Brian White, who brought the motion to a special meeting held virtually Friday. “This is, in my opinion, an emergency motion to get some measures in place… we can’t delay this any further.”

The meeting was called after Lambton County councillors recently voted against providing washrooms at the south-end Sarnia park

Friday’s motion allows CAO Chris Carter to authorize temporary measures in Rainbow Park, ‘including, but not limited to fencing, sanitation, lighting and security measures until further legal options become available.’

It added that staff be directed to ‘explore any available opportunities for financial support for these temporary measures from senior levels of government and the County of Lambton,’ and that the situation be reviewed on a 30-day basis.

The motion was supported by White, along with Councillors Anne Marie Gillis, Adam Kilner, Chrissy McRoberts and Mayor Mike Bradley. 

Councillors Terry Burrell, Bill Dennis and George Vandenberg opposed; Coun. Dave Boushy was absent.

“I think this motion is very flawed and should have been given to us in advance,” said Bradley, who reluctantly supported it, noting that police, public health officials and neighbours should be consulted. “But we need to move forward on the human health aspect of this.”

The Rainbow Park encampment has rapidly increased in size since April, despite objections from neighbours, and calls from some councillors to dismantle it.

Sarnia’s acting solicitor has warned that evicting the some 50 inhabitants would contravene the Charter of Rights & Freedoms, and Police Chief Derek Davis has stressed that police will not make arrests or physically remove encampment residents in order to enforce (a city bylaw) or to clear the encampment of residents and property (without) a court order authorizing the service to take such action.

“We are just asking for trouble,” Coun. Terry Burrell said of the motion, Friday. “I think it’s totally unfair to dump this on our staff — we are not equipped to handle this situation.

“If something actually happens… there’s a big, big liability happening here, and we are going to be at fault,” he added. “We are not doing anything to limit the liability or to get rid of this problem that’s happening; we’re just now talking about adding ways to enable it, and I think it’s a very wrong way to go.

“The more you give people, the more they want.”

Coun. Dennis said Sarnia needs to follow the example of London, Ontario, where bylaw and police officers removed an encampment in the city’s Old East Village earlier this month.

“We all know that Rainbow Park is not a beacon of cleanliness or safety,” he said. “It is not our job to accommodate illegal drug use…these people aren’t making an effort to cure themselves of their addictions.

“We are taking the cowards way out.”

Some councillors have expressed frustration with a lack of action from the County of Lambton, which is responsible for housing and homelessness.

“Where is the County and where is the Province in all of this?” said Gillis. “I would suggest that…the infrastructure we are creating to accommodate these people, that we need to send the County the bill.”

Carter added that city officials, ‘continue to advise public health and social services to fulfill their mandate.’

“What is going to happen with the people? Those individuals that are down there? That needs to be answered…from the individuals at the County level that are mandated from the province,” Carter said. “We don’t have social services here — that’s not our wheelhouse. This is the County’s wheelhouse in terms of how they deal with the individuals that are down there — and I don’t have an answer for it.”

Watch the video below:

(Note: City Council meetings are now being held via Zoom for the ‘foreseeable future’ as a precaution, in connection to a health and safety issue related to the Municipal Act. Coun. Bill Dennis has confirmed he is named the respondent in a workplace harassment complaint and that he will be included in the investigation.)




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