Southwestern Ontario’s shelter shortage

Front-line workers say homelessness is on the rise in four counties north of London. So why aren’t there more permanent shelter spaces?
By Mary Baxter - Published on Jan 31, 2020
The town hall in Exeter, a small community roughly 50 kilometres north of London. (google.com)

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“I’d never seen people sleep on the steps of the municipality’s town hall,” says George Finch, the mayor of South Huron, recalling the encampments that sprang up last summer in Exeter, a small community roughly 50 kilometres north of London. People, some of whom had been evicted from a nearby rental-housing community to make way for redevelopment, pitched tents in the municipal overnight campground by the Ausable River. A handful slept in front of the library or on the steps of the historic yellow-brick town hall.

Local agencies and church groups scrambled to help. “We had three individuals that we supported that were staying there [at the campground],” says Angela Cullen, a mental-health worker with Middlesex-Exeter CMHA. “They came to our centre — we offer free lunch every day. We have a shower, and we’re open — we’re a day centre … As well, we tried to reach out to those that we didn’t support.”

The situation highlighted a larger issue in the area: local agencies suggest that homelessness is on the rise in the four counties north of London — Bruce, Grey, Huron, and Perth — just as it is in cities across Ontario. Yet the region, which is three times the size of Prince Edward Island and includes urban centres such as Goderich, Hanover, Owen Sound, and Stratford, doesn’t have a single permanent shelter for adult men or for women not fleeing domestic abuse.

Finch, a retired OPP officer who spent his 30-year career stationed in Huron County, says that homelessness has always been an issue in the area, but that it was often hidden. “We know in Huron County, there’s 100 people who identified as homeless,” he says. “But we know there’s a lot more than that that are couch-surfing, and there are families that are being evicted out of their houses because of rent issues and whatnot and no place to go. And it’s really hard to find a rental place in South Huron. There’s hardly any vacancies available.”

County enumerations from 2018 show a homeless population of about 250 for the region, but the reports themselves acknowledge that the number might not tell the whole story. In Perth County and Stratford, for instance, 89 per cent of the completed surveys came from Stratford. “It is likely, therefore, that the results do not reflect the true state of homelessness in the rural areas of Perth County,” the report says.

The appearance of tent communities over recent months has many concerned that the population may be surging. “We’ve recently seen tent communities throughout Grey-Bruce, with the largest portion presenting in Owen Sound and Hanover,” says Matt Shute, a program director for the Canadian Mental Health Association of Grey-Bruce. He estimates that 50 of the 150 people on the association’s wait-list for specialized subsidized housing are completely homeless.

So far, there have been no deaths attributed to homelessness in his area, he says, noting that it can be difficult to gather solid statistics. “It’s a bit of a loose association to say, well, someone’s died as a direct result of not having housing,” he explains.

While several communities offer shelters for women and children who have experienced abuse, and there’s a youth shelter in Stratford and a 12-bed shelter in the winter in Goderich, there is no year-round emergency homeless shelter for adult men or for adult women. The nearest such shelters are located in Kitchener-Waterloo, London, and Sarnia, but those on the front lines say that many of them are at capacity, and most jurisdictions discourage the practice of sending people across county or regional boundaries for shelter.

“Absolutely, it’s an issue,” says John Robertson, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association of Huron Perth. Over a period of a month and a half last year, Goderich’s seasonal shelter served 32 people — a volume Robertson had never seen before in his 20-year career. “What happens when the thing closes?” he asks.

While participants in a 2017 Rural Ontario Institute study identified a need for more shelter access (as well for other programs, such as transitional housing), facilities can be expensive for smaller communities — and difficult to staff. The budget for the six-month, county-funded shelter in Goderich is $150,000, most of which is spent on staffing. Erin Schooley, Huron County’s homelessness-program supervisor, notes that they used to rely more on volunteers to help cover nights. But, she says, “It’s a lot to ask volunteer staff.”

Some jurisdictions, such as Bruce, Grey, and Perth, offer short-term hotel stays, but that approach has drawbacks, says Shute: “If the hotel is filled with tourists, then it’s harder to acquire a room there … and individuals seeking emergency-shelter accommodation often come with a lot complexity. So if they access a hotel room and something doesn’t go well or something gets damaged, then that hotel room to that person is no longer a resource.”

In Exeter, Heather MacKechnie, who helped spearhead a local response to the homelessness crisis, says some advised her to refer people to shelters in London. However, she insists that people are best served locally. “We really believe that it’s important to keep people in their home communities because, even if they are experiencing homelessness, they often have support, whether it be a counsellor or a family member,” says MacKechnie, a communications specialist with Exeter United Church.

Many municipalities, counties, and regions are working on homelessness strategies. According to Shute, Grey-Bruce is developing a coordinated access-by-names list so that, he says, “you could see how many people are homeless, how long they’ve been homeless for, and reasons for becoming homeless and also reasons for exiting that cycle of poverty.”

MacKechnie wants to see her community band together to find solutions; last fall, she helped establish a 17-member steering committee — including a lawyer, a landlord, and representation from social agencies, local churches, and schools — to tackle the issue. 

The committee works to ensure that people are provided with warm blankets and clothes. It’s also been hosting community forums to gather public input and provide education about homelessness. Some 150 people attended one held in October, and about 40 attended another one earlier this month, says Cullen, who’s also a steering-committee member. “There was a lot of good conversation,” she says of the recent event. “Even if we get 40 people out, we’re educating. We’re educating about the myths of homelessness.”

MacKechnie says that the committee ruled out the idea of establishing a shelter, largely because of the expense. “Our efforts were better focused on longer-term plans that will help end chronic homelessness as opposed to just be a Band-Aid solution,” she says.

The committee proposes doubling capacity at the Huron Turning Point Residence, a local non-profit transitional-housing program for men, from three beds to six. The year-long transitional housing program offers assistance in finding permanent housing, as well as access to counselling and skills development, MacKechnie says. Fundraising for this project, and for an emergency fund to help prevent evictions, is underway.

Developing a long-term housing strategy is the main priority for the future. “These are serious problems and … there isn’t a magic fix,” MacKechnie says. “But I am optimistic because, over the last six months, we’ve seen an openness in our community to having these conversations, a lot of support both from volunteers and financially, and a real coming together of all the different stakeholders.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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