Unhoused community’s public struggle in Kenora going unnoticed says grassroots organization

Advocates from the grassroots coalition Kenora Moving Forward (KMF) say a lack of relevant and accessible social services is a major factor in overdose deaths that hit the city at the end of November and into January.

KMF, which speaks out for the city’s vulnerable, says those who use drugs or are unhoused continue to struggle in the northwestern Ontario tourist destination.

According to KMF, five people have recently died because of an overdose. There are roughly 250 unhoused people in the city, who experience issues surrounding substance use differently due to the lack of support and safe environments available.

Miranda Elder, a peer support worker for KMF says that if the city continues without a 24-hour shelter where people can find refuge, the problem will only persist.

“I don’t understand why the community is not stepping up to solve the problem like it’s a pretty basic solution,” says Elder, “If we had somewhere to go, people wouldn’t be… dying alone.

“Between 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., when the shelter’s not open and the fellowship closes, there’s nowhere for people to legally be.”

Kenora launched a campaign in 2022 to reinvigorate tourism and the local business sector titled Glad You Are Here, with a large banner greeting visitors when they enter the city. But some of Kenora’s most vulnerable residents don’t feel they are welcome.

APTN News reached out to the City of Kenora for comment on a number of occasions but didn’t hear back.

People that are unhoused in Kenora currently have few options when it comes to finding shelter, to sleep or a place to warm up during the harsh winter days.

There is the 44-bed Kenora Emergency Shelter that is only available at night and the Kenora Fellowship Centre that works as a multi-resource building and closes in the late afternoon, amongst few other temporary supports.

Elder says people use drugs to help deal with the elements and trauma. But she said since there are no supervised injection sites in the city, folks are left on their own to find a place to use and often rely on unsanitary and makeshift sites.

Life and death consequences 

On Jan. 19, Benjamin Little Tree O’Cheek, 24, was found unresponsive behind the ticket booth for MS Kenora, a local tourist cruise ship currently out of season.

The Ontario Provincial Police said it was a sudden death and deemed it non-suspicious.

“This is around the 67th or 68th friend that has passed away from addiction,” says Elder. “Every time it happens, it feels like we’re all living in a Russian roulette situation where we never know who’s going to be next.”

In a memorial Facebook post for O’Cheek, KMF advocate Mary Alice Smith says that he was a familiar face at KMF programs and that the multiple losses have gone unnoticed by the general public.

“The lack of coverage and outrage over these deaths… is in stark contrast to the media attention and voices raised throughout the region about safety issues in downtown Kenora,” she says.

“Indeed, our streets are uncomfortable for many, but they are deadly to those who are living out there.”

O’Cheek’s mother, Marguerite Hunt who lives in Victoria, B.C., says her son moved to Kenora with family in 2021 before living on the streets.

“He was a really nice kid. He always looked after the underdogs, he was an incredible athlete,” says Hunt.

She had talked with her son only five days before his death. She later found out through a stranger on Facebook that it was now their last conversation.

Though O’Cheek’s official cause of death is currently unknown at this point, Hunt says racism and intergenerational trauma prompted his difficulties with substance use and houselessness.

“He came into the world with a lot of trauma. Unfortunately, his dad and I were both [victims of the 60’s Scoop] and we were not knowing how to self-regulate our own trauma. We in turn passed that onto [O’Cheek] and I feel like now that I’ve had to sit with everything and sit with his death,” says Hunt.

She says compassion and empathy are needed to help others like O’Cheek feel safe to begin healing.

“We need to take a hard look on not punishing people who are in addictions but finding ways that we can sit across the table and hear them out and deal with the trauma,” she says.

This is part one of APTN’s Kenora Unhoused series, which looks at the reality faced by many of the city’s unhoused community.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on March 2.

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