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New Blue Door CEO ‘thinking a little differently’ about homelessness

May 30, 2019

‘If we keep reacting to homelessness after it has happened, we will never prevent it from happening,’ Michael Braithwaite says

Apr 2, 2019 6:00 PM by: Debora Kelly

The new CEO of Blue Door wants to do things differently when it comes to taking on the issue of homelessness in York Region.

“If we keep doing the same things over and over again, we will get the same results,” Michael Braithwaite said. “If we keep reacting to homelessness after it has happened, we will never prevent it from happening.”

Undoubtedly, there is a need to provide emergency housing to the growing number of York Region residents experiencing homelessness, but there is an opportunity to also focus on prevention, he said.

Blue Door provides safe and supportive emergency housing and housing services and supports for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. There is a shelter located in Holland Landing near Bradford West Gwillimbury.

Braithwaite is returning to York Region, where from 2010 to 2017 he was executive director of 360°kids, a non-profit that provides emergency housing, programs and services for young people in need.

It is his most recent experience, as executive director at Raise the Roof, a Toronto-based national charity dedicated to providing long-term strategic solutions to homelessness, that affirms the importance of “thinking a little differently and getting out ahead of homelessness, rather than reacting when someone becomes homeless”, he said.

Initiatives such as the existing partnership with York Region school boards that help to identify young people at risk of homelessness are proving to have an impact, he said, as well as programs that increase affordable housing options.

“I’m excited to take on this challenge,” Braithwaite added, saying he is eager to return to working at a “hands-on, grassroots” level.

The passion to make a difference with homelessness is close to his heart for “very personal” reasons, too, he said. For decades, his sister was in and out of homelessness, from the age of 16.

“There is nothing that I will not do for the cause.”

The wait list for affordable housing continues to grow and shelter beds in York Region are scant, given our population of 1.1 million people.

Founded in 1982, Blue Door has seen first-hand the region’s growing homelessness crisis at its three emergency housing locations, Leeder Place for families, Porter Place for men, and Kevin’s Place for male youth.

According to The Homeless Hub, in 2016, 1,554 individuals used York Region emergency housing services. Of these, 239 were chronically homeless.

The current number of beds are:

  • Emergency Housing beds 160 (2018)
  • Beds for youth 42 (2018)
  • Beds for families 15 units/60 beds (2018)

The limited emergency housing resources, chronic homelessness and lack of affordable housing in York Region have created an untenable situation, which has made “shelter diversion” — providing support to families and individuals before they enter the shelter system — a priority.

Diversion programs include helping people seeking emergency housing to find alternate arrangements and connecting them with services and financial assistance.

“Because we have chronically homeless people, and because (permanent affordable) housing doesn’t exist, we have beds taken up by people who do not need emergency services.

“How do we divert people? It’s a challenge. We will have to be innovative,” Braithwaite said.

And adding more beds isn’t the solution.

“We are not going to build our way out of it,” he said.

Innovative partnerships, including with developers, government, churches and other non-profit agencies such as LOFT Crosslinks Housing and Support Services, Canadian Mental Health Association and the Krasman Centre, can play a key role, Braithwaite said.

An example he points to is a unique partnership between Raising the Roof and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), which transformed a vacant 19th-century church in Caledon into a home for adults with special needs.

Braithwaite has a seat on the Region of York’s Human Services Planning Board, which is a multi-sector collaborative comprised of leaders and decision-makers from social service agencies, funders, government, and the education, health care and private sectors.

He shares the drive to tackle homelessness with his wife, Sylvia Braithwaite, who is director of Shelters and Women’s 24-Hour Drop-in Services for Fred Victor.

“This is all in the family,” he said.

Braithwaite, who replaces former CEO Anne Stubley, is a Toronto resident.