Posted on: August 24th, 2023. By: Joseph Quigley, newmarkettoday.ca, Original Article.
‘We don’t go in … with the intent to criminalize, to enforce. We go in with the intent to understand, to listen and to support,’ says homelessness director about York Region’s approach to encampments
When Ends Don’t Meet is a regular NewmarketToday series highlighting issues of social equity by sharing the stories of community members left struggling to make ends meet during a far-reaching affordability crisis.
Dan Spencer has experienced plenty of hardship while homeless in recent months.
After a fire destroyed a place he was staying at with a friend, Spencer journeyed from Midland to his hometown of Sutton, using what little he had to buy a tent. Relying on the Ontario Disability Support Program to get by, Spencer hoped to find a new home.
But he didn’t have any luck finding a roof above his head in his hometown, so Spencer said he had to continue camping outdoors for weeks and weeks — most definitely not the fun experience with which the word is often associated.
“I was on my own. People think it’s like camping, but it’s not,” Spencer said. “When you’re out camping, if you run out of hamburgers and hotdogs, you can go to a grocery store and replace those … When you’re on your own, you don’t have the funds for that. It’s damn near impossible.”
He said he considered shelters before Porter Place, but finding space is a challenge.
“You try to call the shelters, but they can only take you if they have room,” he said. “So I just stayed out in the camp.”
Eventually, he did receive access to some support programs and ended up staying at Porter Place, a men’s emergency shelter run by Blue Door just outside Newmarket.
Homeless encampments have become a rising point of concern in recent years. Although exact statistics for encampments are hard to come by, Newmarket and York Region officials have said it is a rising and more noticeable problem, particularly in the summers. The region identified 202 individuals experiencing chronic homelessness in 2022, up from 124 in 2019.
Meanwhile, a recent court ruling in Waterloo Region has put more pressure on municipalities, with a judge ruling that municipalities must have proper facilities for the homeless, or they cannot clear people out of encampments.
Although encampments are a concern, York Region has maintained a “human rights approach” to addressing them, according to Debbie Thompson, York Region director of homelessness and community programs.
She confirmed there are encampments throughout York Region, including in Newmarket.
When receiving calls for encampment intervention, a regional outreach team works with partners like Blue Door and will visit the sites to try to find solutions for the individuals without homes there, she said.
“They determine what their needs are. One of the things they can do is facilitate access to emergency housing or other options,” Thompson said. “Sometimes those other options include (going to) family or friends, or those individuals try and find and alternative place to stay in the community. And sometimes, (the team) has to engage for many weeks.”
The growing trend of encampments has been noticeable, Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite said.
“Due to the lack, or need, for greater housing options, all the different pressure whether it be increasing expenses of food, gas, of course, housing, we see more and more people pushed into experiencing homelessness,” Braithwaite said. “There’s no question homelessness has become much more visible across York Region, but also Ontario, across the country.”
The region is working on developing more affordable housing, although it has struggled to meet its own affordable housing targets in the last five years. It is also developing emergency housing, but a proposal for an emergency and transitional housing facility in Aurora is in limbo after community outcry.
The lack of housing does impact the work intervening with encampments.
“We don’t have sufficient emergency housing to meet the needs,” Thompson said, but added that the region is invested in preventing homelessness and developing transitional housing, as well.
“We’re investing in longer-term housing so that people don’t have to come to the emergency housing system.”
Conversing with individuals to find family and friends who they may be able to connect and stay with does see success, Thompson added.
“We find creative ways to support family reunification, which is an important aspect of this work.”
Those efforts do mean the region tends to avoid the enforcement approach to encampments that is happening in some communities. Although police and bylaw can be involved in the outreach process, Thompson said they do not try to force people to move.
“Each of those partners shares our commitment to using a human rights approach,” Thompson said. “And because of that shared understanding, we don’t go into any situation with the intent to criminalize, to enforce. We go in with the intent to understand, to listen and to support.”
Legal clinics across Ontario sent open letters to municipalities in August discussing homelessness and municipalities taking anti-homeless positions. The community legal clinics discussed the Waterloo ruling and how municipalities must provide housing if they are going to force people out of encampments.
“An alarming and increasing number of Ontarians, most of whom are living with disabilities, are now forced to live outdoors in dire poverty,” the letter said, citing low social assistance rates, rising rents and a landlord-friendly legal system as some of the causes. “The homelessness crisis in this province is a ‘made in Ontario crisis’ brought about by the policy decisions and choices of successive provincial governments over the past three decades.”
While critical of the approaches of municipalities like Barrie that proposed a law to limit aid to people without homes, the Community Legal Clinic of York Region praised the region’s approach to encampments.
“Although we are happy to support the provincewide effort, we are also pleased to report that, so far as we can tell, York Region is taking a compassionate, progressive approach to its unhoused residents and is doing about all it can to support them,” a letter from the Community Legal Clinic of York Region said. “While much more work is needed, we believe that York Region is working in good faith to do all it can to fight the homelessness crisis, and want to express our appreciation on behalf of our client community.”
Feeding the poor
Homelessness is apparent in other ways throughout town and other organizations are trying to help.
Every Tuesday, dozens of people flock to the Trinity United Church in downtown Newmarket in search of a meal. It is one of several churches in the area doing so, each covering a different day of the week. Through St. John Chrysostom Church, Christian Baptist Church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Crosslands Church and the Alliance Community Valleyview Church, residents can get a free meal every day of the week, with Inn From the Cold having an option Fridays.
“We just do it because we want to feed people,” said Sue Harland, who helps run the program at Trinity. “There’s so much (food) insecurity. Some of the guys that come to the meal aren’t homeless, but I would say the majority of them are.”
Attendance for their meals is steadily around 60 to 80 people, Harland said, adding many are families struggling to put food on the table.
It is a “judgment-free space,” she said.
“To be honest, nobody really volunteers the fact they’re homeless when I’m talking with them,” Harland said. “Nobody is going to sit and want to talk about being homeless. It’s private.”
Some people come from beyond Newmarket for the meal, she said, arriving from surrounding communities.
Besides offering food, it is a social opportunity, Harland said, with people making friendships. The program has run for several years, transforming to do takeout at the height of the pandemic. About 90 meals go out each week, with some taking seconds with them.
Running the program is challenging, funded through church donations, Harland said. Some grant funding was available at the height of the pandemic, but she said that has dried up.
“There’s a lot of organization that goes with that. We’re a very small group of volunteers,” Harland said.
After several weeks outside, Spencer said he was connected to a social program while at a free community dinner, which eventually resulted in a temporary shelter bed at Porter Place.
Living there has been a significant improvement, he said.
“I’ve got a bed to sleep on. My roof doesn’t leak. I’m not dealing with raccoons and coyotes and this and that,” he said.
Getting better has been a rocky road, he acknowledged. He temporarily left Porter Place after he got into a physical altercation with another resident, but was eventually allowed to return.
Now he has made a friend, and they are exploring finding a place as roommates, which helps with affordability, Spencer said.
Being on ODSP makes it difficult to pay for a room or unit on his own, he added.
“If you’re on welfare or disability, there’s no way you’re getting in,” Spencer said, particularly because of the thousands of dollars required as a deposit for rentals. “You can’t even afford the rent after you get in. It’s impossible.”
The region is working on a new homelessness plan that Thompson said will help strengthen housing stability.
Creating more subsidized and geared-to-income housing is critical, Spencer said. Rising rents and the various hurdles that come with trying to find a room when you’re poor are major issues, he added.
“It’s just killing people,” he said. “It’s putting more people on the street.”