A harm reduction expert in Niagara says there is a problem in the area with people gaining access to vacant buildings and properties, often in Welland.
Andrew Mekbeb was among a dozen people who took part in a monthly virtual meeting on Thursday to discuss the issues facing residents and business owners in the Pink City, as part of a community watch group set up by Welland Downtown BIA about a year and a half ago. .
Mekbeb is an outreach worker with StreetWorks, part of Positive Living Niagara.
StreetWorks is an agency that provides harm reduction information, peer-to-peer programs, links to testing, and safer injection and inhalation supplies to people in Niagara.
Mekbeb said he has a meeting scheduled for Friday with City of Welland Bylaw staff to discuss land behind Trapper’s Bar, which appears to be regularly occupied by people who access it through a hole in a fence.
At the same meeting, Mayor Frank Campion described the lot as an extension of the former Welmet property, which is considered a highly contaminated brownfield. A promoter and the city have been “trying to do something” for several years.
Mekbeb said municipalities need to have “stricter bylaws for vacant and unmanaged properties,” also noting that the City of St. Catharines will address a motion on this at the end of the month.
He said StreetWorks made multiple visits to that property in Welland, finding “increasing amounts of trash, sometimes human waste,” as well as discarded needles.
He used the forum Thursday to stress the importance of reporting unsecured vacant buildings to municipal and emergency authorities, saying it has become a “very big problem” in Niagara.
Often the owners of these locations are from out of town and “unfortunately don’t care about these properties”.
Campion thanked Mekbeb and StreetWorks for their work in the city and said he was aware of the recommendations that will soon be presented to St. Catharines council.
He said there are currently no regulations in Welland about requiring landowners to secure their land with fencing, adding he was open to having a discussion with his local government colleagues.
“I think we want to take a look at it,” he said during the meeting.
“We do these things proactively,” the mayor said, stressing the importance of partnerships with the police, StreetWorks, as well as the BIA.
“By doing this together, we can actually get things done very, very quickly if we talk to the right people,” Campion said.
In an interview after Thursday morning’s meeting, Mekbeb said StreetWorks seeks to “work collaboratively with any landowner” regarding who accesses their buildings or land.
This cannot be done without both parties communicating.
“We can’t just go to private property and clean up on their behalf,” he said.
StreetWorks also runs a van program in the area, visiting Welland evenings Monday through Friday, usually in the Market Square.
Many people who live their lives “couch surfing” and are involved in substance use are the ones they interact with, he said.
The goal is to “make sure they have the necessary supplies” and offer referrals to shelter programs, as well as the Niagara Assertive Street Outreach team.
The Community Watch Group meets on the third Thursday of every month and is assisted by Welland Fire and Emergency Services Chief Adam Eckhart, as well as representatives from Niagara Regional Police, Public Health from Niagara Region, Niagara Region, social service agencies, BIA and local businesses.