By Alex Lambert
Staff Writer

Pembroke – Neighbours of The Grind aired their grievances at a town hall meeting last Thursday night hosted by city Councillor Ian Kuehl.

Residents, parents and business owners of downtown Pembroke shared disturbing stories of drug use, fighting, pet abduction, defecation on property and abuse issues at a reverse town hall meeting at the 50+ Active Living Centre.

“This is your opportunity to tell your story as neighbours of The Grind,” Coun. Kuehl told the audience of about 50. “There’s way more people here than I thought there ever would be. If we could try and keep our comments to the facts and to the basics so we can make sure everybody can speak…We do have some members of the media here and part of that is by design.”

Homelessness has taken its toll on the Pembroke community in many forms, the most notable of which is the growing insecurity residents feel for their safety. With complaints to the city council seemingly going unheard and incidents of violence or disturbance causing fear among residents, the frustration is palpable.

The region’s uptick in overdose deaths and the escalating drug and homelessness crisis has prompted innovative community responses like the recently formed ‘Mesa’ foot patrol group. Renfrew County also recently announced the addition of a transitional home in Pembroke to provide more localized resources to the community.

Despite being a requirement in its original lease, constituents of downtown Pembroke are questioning The Grind’s guarantee it will be a safe environment without panhandling, loitering, smoking or abuse.

According to Isabella Street resident Krista Zingel, the lease states “very clearly” the facility is not to be a disturbance to neighbours, yet they have never received an enforcement letter despite many complaints.

Ms. Zingel described an incident from past weeks when the police were called to The Grind after a client revealed what appeared to be a handgun and started knocking on the window. Five police vehicles arrived on the scene after a Grind staff member hit the panic button and locked herself in the kitchen.

“There’s like a hundred people around…The cops converged on our little neighbourhood, and it was chaos,” she said. “Our CAO said that was not a disturbance.”

The case was dismissed as a false alarm just because the gun was a replica.

Neighbours feel they are sitting idly by and waiting for the other shoe to drop. Many speakers mentioned their children stumbling upon drug paraphernalia such as needles and crack pipes as well as other unsightly encounters.

Home / business owners, parents and residents of Downtown Pembroke gathered to discuss the impact of The Grind on the community, including issues with noise, abuse and drugs.

Co-owner of McGuires Donuts, Connor McGuire, who grew up on Isabella Street, said he moved back to Pembroke from Ottawa to give his kids the same freedom and “wonderful upbringing” he had. Now, he shares horror stories of having his dog abducted and being swarmed and solicited for money outside of his home before taking his son to soccer practice.

“It’s hard to teach my kids to be good neighbours when we see the activities that happen,” he said. “People throwing drug paraphernalia on the street, people screaming and disrobing. People using the side of the parking lot as a bathroom while I’m teaching my kids to use a bike. All I want is for The Grind to be a good neighbour.”

“Our kids have to run inside because there’s someone having an episode after hours. We have to police the neighbourhood.,” he continued. “This is one of my biggest issues. We’re some of the greatest advocates for The Grind because we’re looking out for their clients when they’re not.”

One source of contention was that the designation of the society’s most vulnerable population goes to the homeless. Neighbours of The Grind argue this title belongs first and foremost to children, followed by seniors and those with disabilities including mental health issues.

Marie Perron, a 90-year-old woman suffering from cancer, has been sleeping with the TV turned up loudly to drown out the sounds of shouting and fighting.

“I constantly have to clean up; they leave all their garbage all over the place. Someone threw their bike over my fence. I thought I was seeing things.”

She took the chance to make a call to action, saying, “It’s not going to be settled until somebody gets hurt or killed. I want us to get all together with signs in front of the hall to shame them.”

Another common counterargument is that it’s like this everywhere in Ontario and not just in Pembroke. However, others say a litany of complaints launched towards The Grind’s board of directors and Pembroke city council have been all ignored.

Jamie Law, owner of Law & Orders feels like his families safety has been compromised. He shared horror stories at a town hall meeting. Pembroke Councilor Ian Kuehl listens next to him.

Jamie Law, owner of Law & Orders, said his family and neighbours are afraid to sit in their backyard because they feel unsafe around their own home.

“I am not a guy that normally ever called police. I’ve went through 45 years of my life and maybe called the police once,” he said. “I’ve had to call the police so many times now I don’t even remember. I think I’m over 90 times. People are OD’ing, foaming out the mouth. Someone laid a dead body right on my back doorstep in the end of October.”

Andrew Bailey, a former outreach coordinator at The Grind, said he had to step away because of internal conflicts he had with the organization’s management.

“My heart is all for reconciliation. My heart is to sit down with Jerry Novack and Deacon Adrian Chaput), the board, and to be able to say exactly what we’re saying tonight. We need change. We care about these people… We care about our community,” he said.

Coun. Kuehl said that at the end of the day, it’s a social contract.

“These people deserve professional help, and they deserve professional treatment,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with addicts, but I have a problem with assholes. Just because you have a mental health issue or addiction problem, doesn’t give you the right to go kick in somebody’s fence.”

“With the greatest of respect, the only way I learn things is when people tell me. Contrary to the many people on Facebook, I, as a councillor, cannot read everybody’s minds. I’m not going to make any promises because I don’t ever want to break a promise, but I will be there for you.”