THUNDER BAY — An update on the city's homelessness strategy has prompted concerns over declining effectiveness, and worries a lack of housing and shelter spaces could leave people out in the cold this winter.
City council endorsed a “human-rights based approach” to homeless encampments earlier this year, rejecting evictions of the homeless from public lands like parks other than in “exceptional circumstances,” and instead coordinating with local agencies that visit encampments to offer supports.
City staff say the new approach was highly successful when piloted in 2022, connecting over 50 people with housing, even if it generated intense frustration among some residents.
In an update to council on Monday, staff described this year’s situation as “much more challenging,” resulting in only 13 people being housed, while nearly 100 were placed on community housing waitlists.
Staff chalked those challenges up largely to a dramatic increase in the number of people in encampments and low housing availability.
“Emergency shelter systems have been consistently at or near capacity, and there continues to be extremely limited — if any — availability in affordable or supportive housing options,” staff reported.
Cynthia Olsen, the city’s acting director of strategic initiatives, said that’s frustrating those in encampments and the outreach workers looking to support them.
“People are burning out because they’re just having to wait, and having to see individuals in very deplorable conditions because there is no space,” she said. “It’s a challenge for individuals outside, who are hopeful this may mean access to indoor sheltering options, [but often] there are none.”
The District of Thunder Bay Social Services Administration Board, which administers provincial housing dollars in the district, says the average wait for community housing is around 12.4 months, or 8.6 months for those on a high-needs homeless waitlist.
The agency called those among the lowest wait times in the province, but CAO Bill Bradica said it’s clear more funding is needed from both the province and the feds to meet local needs.
Olsen pointed to statistics indicating a three-fold increase in the number of people living in encampments, rising from a peak of around 50 in 2022 to over 150 this year based on tracking by local agencies.
Council expressed concern that trend could continue into the cold weather, with the possibility the dozen people reported living outdoors through winter 2022 could balloon.
“This is an emergency, and I’m just thinking about getting them inside, out of the elements, someplace where it might be safe, because I believe people may very well die… when the weather gets cooler,” said Coun. Dominic Pasqualino.
“I can’t live with myself that someone could possibly die because they don’t have somewhere warm to go in the wintertime,” said Coun. Kristen Oliver.
Some councillors suggested emergency steps might be necessary, floating ideas like opening a city-owned building as emergency shelter space, or building makeshift temporary shelters to allow people to escape the elements.
Coun. Shelby Ch’ng asked if the city had considered calling for military assistance to provide tents and medical support, a step staff said had not been looked at.
In an interview, Elevate NWO executive director Holly Gauvin expressed limited enthusiasm over those emergency measures.
“I think the first thing would be going back to our shelters and seeing what they need to be able to increase their capacity,” she said. “Before we talk about creating anything new, we need to shore up the response of places like Shelter House, the Urban Abbey, Grace Place.”
Paul Magiskan, homelessness policy analyst for Matawa First Nations, agreed.
“I think there’s too much emphasis on short-term, ‘What are we going to do this month?’” he said. “It feels like every year, councillors are getting yelled at for, ‘What are you going to do [now]?’”
“There’s a lot of pressure for results now, results in between election windows, and such… Homelessness in general needs to get less of a short-term, what can we do today mentality, and more of a long-term, what is the city going to do over the next 30 to 40 years?”
He added while the level of attention homelessness receives may be new, the problem is not.
“People are [already] dying on the streets — it’s not a new thing for Thunder Bay for people to be dying in the winter on the streets,” he said. “We read about it last year and the year before that, and we’ll read about it this year.”
Mayor Ken Boshcoff called tackling homelessness a top priority for the city.
“I’m pretty stressed about trying to address this issue,” he said. “It’s taking a strain on our emergency service workers, who were trained to do other types of emergency work, as opposed to what happens in front of city hall several times a day.”
“As a collective, the only [thing] we can do is support these initiatives that we hear from our administration… and keep coming up with any ideas that you hear. I’m willing to listen to anybody who even comes close to some kind of a solution.”
Despite councillors’ rhetoric, city spending on homelessness has remained a budget footnote.
The city allocated $20,000 to support people living in encampments this year, an amount supplemented with some emergency COVID funding. Another $20,000 is planned in the 2024 budget, though staff said more may be requested.
“That doesn’t seem like enough to me, by a long shot,” Ch’ng said.
Bradica questioned the utility of the city’s involvement in housing issues, given minimal accompanying funding.
“It’s just interesting that the city has a homelessness strategy, if they’re not providing funding,” he said. “If they’re putting money into housing, that’s great. They were able to give the art gallery $5.5 million, which is great, and maybe they’re considering doing the same for community housing.”
Bradica also cautioned it’s not clear the massive increase in people living in encampments reflects an overall rise in the homeless population.
“I believe there has been an increase in the number of people living unsheltered, but is it a tripling? I don’t know that,” he said.
“There were people living in very remote settings, wooded areas, that in some cases aren’t anymore. I think more people are coming into these encampments that are semi-organized because there are services available.”
Gauvin has little doubt the number of people who are homeless or precariously housed has surged, based on user numbers from Elevate and other organizations.
“Times are really, really desperate, and I don’t think even those of us on the ground… realized until the last year or so just how desperate things got,” she said. “This summer was a real eye-opener when we saw 160 people in our encampment at one time.”
The number of emergency shelter spaces has increased with an additional 10 women-only beds at the Urban Abbey and an expansion at Grace Place, Bradica said, adding the DSSAB increased emergency shelter spending by over $600,000 this year.
He estimated there are around 133 shelter beds available through the winter, but called it “quite likely” those beds would sometimes fill up. Some DSSAB funding is available for hotel rooms in those cases.
Olsen told council there is “hope on the horizon” thanks to a major provincial homelessness funding increase that has allowed the DSSAB to fund more transitional and supportive housing units, as well as outreach efforts and other programs.
Bradica said dozens of new transitional housing units are on the way, with some already online. He also welcomed the news that a 58-bed project led by Ontario Aboriginal Housing Service will go ahead.
Gauvin called progress on transitional housing real and encouraging, but insufficient.
“With all the housing initiatives we know are out there, we still would only maybe serve about half the people who are in the encampments,” she said.
She also emphasized the need for more affordable housing.
“There’s just not anything available that’s even remotely affordable. Most places, the most basic accommodations are about three times more than a person living on an income support program can afford. They’re not affordable for people who are making minimum wage [either].”
Council is set to receive a larger report on the city’s homelessness strategy, and the question of whether to establish designated encampment areas, early next year.