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‘I don’t see a plan’: Belleville, Ont. and why it declared a social-issue emergency

Belleville, Ont., Mayor Neil Ellis says the city and its emergency services are being stretched thin because of a range of social issues.

“We need the support not only to alleviate this in the community but it has been taxing our resources,” Ellis said.

The mayor has taken the drastic step of declaring an addiction, mental health and homelessness emergency.

Ellis says there were 16 overdoses on Tuesday; just two days later there have been six more.

“When you declare an emergency … if there’s any access to funding it makes you more of a priority issue,” Ellis said.

Maury Flunder, the chair of Belleville’s business improvement association, says the growing list of social issues in Belleville’s downtown area is the number one concern according to a recent survey of merchants in the area.

The BIA runs an outreach program called Welcoming Streets aimed at helping Belleville’s vulnerable population access support.

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Flunder says despite the efforts of the BIA and the municipality, the crisis is getting worse.

So far, many downtown businesses are doing well, according to Flunder, but he worries people may start avoiding the area.

“The perception from a large part of the community is certainly they don’t want to come down at night, for example, and you know, who wants that?” Flunder said.

Ellis says calls for service to both police and the fire department went up by 18 per cent in 2023 over the previous year.

Some of that increase can be attributed to population growth but Ellis says the growing housing, addiction and mental health crisis was also a big part of that increase.

In a media conference Wednesday morning, Belleville police Chief Mike Callaghan said the downtown core is safe and the service has plans to hire eight more officers this year.

“There are two officers right now assigned to the downtown core and our community response model, as well as we have members walking the beat…. There is some private security involved as well,” Callaghan said during the Wednesday morning media briefing.

The emergency declaration is one part of Belleville’s mayor’s attempt to get the upper levels of government to come up with a comprehensive plan to address the housing, drug addiction and mental health crisis Belleville and many regions across the province and country are facing.

“The gold standard is housing first, wraparound services, whether it be mental health services, drug addiction services and how do we get there? I don’t see a plan,” Ellis said.

Ellis says within the last couple of months Belleville emergency services also had to respond to 90 overdose calls in the span of one week.

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