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‘We all need to dig a little deeper’: York Region plan aims to combat rising homelessness

June 13, 2024

Posted on: June 13, 2024 Posted by: Joseph Quigley, Newmarket Today, Original Article

‘Our community members are getting frustrated … This is an issue that everybody I talk to says they want to see more done about it, Newmarket mayor says.

York Region has a new plan to address the surge of homelessness it is experiencing.

The region is introducing a homelessness service system plan, with an estimated annual budget of $7 million, aimed at providing more funding and rapid action to address the issue. Those rapid actions could start this year and include measures like adding hotel and seasonal shelter beds and more outreach staff.

Council gave tentative approval for the plan June 13. Newmarket’s Inn From the Cold executive director, Ann Watson, said homelessness is becoming more visible and the response needs renewed focus and energy.

“These issues are affecting more and more people in our community,” Watson said to council. “We urgently need leadership and investment from all levels of government to provide affordable housing and support services to prevent and end homelessness.”

The plan comes as the region experiences a significant rise in homelessness. The region said about 473 were experiencing chronic homelessness in its borders in 2023, up from 124 in 2019. Meanwhile, workers visited 204 encampment locations in 2023, more than triple the count of 62 in 2021. It is forecast that the region’s homeless population could increase from 2,100 to 2,300 by 2030.

The plan lays out areas of focus, including improving eviction protection, strengthening homelessness prevention programs, providing wraparound support services, increasing emergency housing capacity and improving advocacy.

For all the proposed rapid actions, staff estimated it would cost up to $7 million annually beyond 2024. While staff suggested funding it within the existing budget this year, it could amount to a 0.5 per cent tax increase to the 2025 tax levy going forward.

“We need to invest in service providers and frontline staff to deliver flexible and person-centred support,” general manager of social services Kevin Pal said. “We need to invest in our emergency and transitional housing system. We need more affordable housing … collaboration, partnership and community are critical.”

Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite also spoke about the importance of the plan.

“We have people working full time that are coming to our Out of the Cold program and in our emergency housing programs because we simply don’t have enough affordable housing,” he said. “If we’re truly going to prevent and end homelessness, we all need to dig a little deeper.”

The province funds up to 70 per cent of homelessness community programs. Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said that does not seem reflective of the new funding and the additional burden should not fall entirely on property taxpayers.

“It is getting tough, and I appreciate the need, and I appreciate the work that’s been done to identify the need in our community,” Scarpitti said, adding that he has never heard so much feedback about property taxes being unaffordable as he has this year.

He suggested adding part to the motion a request that the province fund up to 70 per cent of the region’s new plan. Council tentatively agreed to that, though the exact wording will await the motion receiving final approval at a council meeting later this month.

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor agreed to ask the province to step up with more funding, but said that taxpayers might be understanding of an increase to address this issue. Homelessness is the Number 1 issue among constituents, he added. 

He also said there is a need for more emergency and transitional housing throughout the region, with Newmarket seeing a growing homeless population due to its higher concentration of those spaces.

“We’re struggling to absorb the impact,” Taylor said. “Our community members are getting frustrated … This is an issue that everybody I talk to says they want to see more done about it.”