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New strategies recommended for homelessness and addictions issues

Gaps in housing and health services have exacerbated a crisis in Northern Ontario
(stock photo)

THUNDER BAY — A new report recommends a number of strategies for dealing with homelessness, addiction and mental health issues in Northern Ontario.

According to a paper prepared by Northern Policy Institute policy analyst Holly Parsons, northern communities are increasingly challenged to deal with these issues with existing resources and supports.

"While these issues are not new in the North, significant gaps and barriers in housing and health services have exacerbated the crisis," the report states. 

It points to significantly higher rates of homelessness in Thunder Bay, Kenora, Sault Ste. Marie, Nipissing and Cochrane than in many larger centres such as Hamilton, Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo.    

In some locations, the incidence of homelessness is more than double the rate in southern Ontario.

In the Thunder Bay district, the report states, the homeless population increased by 50 per cent between 2016 ad 2018.

It's well-know that there's also a growing number of people struggling with opioid addiction in the North.

Parsons found that opioid-related emergency department visits have skyrocketed across the region, with increases in various districts ranging between 300 and 600 per cent over five years.

Furthermore, in all but one health unit in Northern Ontario, surveys show that the proportion of residents who perceive their mental health as very good or excellent is below the provincial average.

The Canadian Mental Health Association found that Northern Ontarians self-reported higher rates of depression than the provincial average.

As the new paper notes, despite well-defined roles for the various levels of government in Canada, municipalities are the ones "on the ground," and face extraordinary pressure from their tax bases to solve homelessness, addiction and mental health-related issues.

It says the worsening of these issues shows existing policies and services don't meet the needs of Northern communities.

Parsons says the issues in Northern Ontario "are extremely complex and difficult to solve, in part because they are largely interconnected. As such, coordinated policy initiatives, and action from various actors, is a must."

Her paper identifies eight strategies –described as evidence-based and economically viable – which could be used to address barriers and service gaps.

  1. Provide long-term funding for capital repairs on community housing units
  2. Amend the Health Protection and Promotion Act, 1990 to define a Northern Service Hub and provide additional funding to make it available in communities
  3. Establish a joint action task force to collect data and intelligence on the underlying and systematic retention issues of health care professionals in Northern Ontario
  4. Support new and existing Housing First programs
  5. Support new and existing culturally sensitive community housing facilities for Indigenous peoples
  6. Establish a Northern Mental Health and Addictions Centre to address the unique challenges of service and program delivery in Northern Ontario
  7. Contract a third-party operator for interfacility patient transfers to relieve the workload of paramedics
  8. Establish mandated mobile crisis intervention teams (MCIT) in municipalities throughout Northern Ontario

The full report can be viewed online.

It was produced in partnership with with the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, and the Northern Ontario Service Deliverers Association.

NOMA President Wendy Landry said this is the first time the groups have come together to gather evidence for their advocacy for more government support.

"We feel we're different from other parts of our province, and we believe [the problems here] need to be dealt with in a different way," she said.

NOMA and its partners will take the paper with them to the Association of Ontario Municipalities annual meeting in Ottawa next week with several members of the provincial cabinet.

"This will help show the research and the evidence-based approach that we're taking to this crisis in Northern Ontario," Landry said.


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