North Perth seeks balance between compassion and community standards in homelessness response

NORTH PERTH – A delegation from the City of Stratford Social Services presented a report to the Municipality of North Perth council on Feb. 28 about homelessness across Perth County.

There has been a visible increase in unsheltered homelessness across the county recently. The City of Stratford receives Provincial Funding through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to provide homelessness and housing stability services.

Since the onset of COVID-19, the department has seen an increase in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness.

“Unfortunately, one of the fallouts from this pandemic is the increased numbers of unsheltered homelessness we are seeing,” said Director of Social Services Kim McElroy. “Not only are we seeing this issue gaining attention locally, but it is also at the forefront of service delivery and planning of every consolidated municipal service manager across the province.”

Manager of Ontario Works, Alex Burgess, explained the four types of homelessness they see in the area. “There is emergency sheltered, those who are provisionally accommodated – so they have no security of tenancy, those who are at risk of homelessness and … unsheltered homelessness,” he said.

In North Perth, specifically Listowel, he noted that there had been an increase in encampments over the last few years.

“It’s not a very simple problem, and it does not have a simple solution to it,” said Burgess. “Unsheltered homelessness is quite often exacerbated by factors … such as untreated mental illness, increased risk of substance use, lack of suitable housing options, the decreased affordability we’ve seen in the housing market over the past few years and, specifically due to COVID, a lack of informal housing options such as couch surfing.”

He acknowledged that encampments could also be problematic for community members due to disruptive behaviours.

“There could be vandalism, excessive garbage or human waste as a result of it,” said Burgess. “There could be a disruption or trespassing onto private property. There is also urban camping which can cause a disruption to businesses in the downtown core.”

There is a housing-focused emergency accommodations program in Perth County, but it’s not a typical brick-and-mortar shelter.

“I do just want to note, at this time; unfortunately, there are no emergency shelter accommodations available in North Perth.”

Manager of Ontario Works, Alex Burgess.

“We utilize local motels for individuals and families who need emergency shelter,” he said. “I do just want to note, at this time; unfortunately, there are no emergency shelter accommodations available in North Perth.”

Individuals go to Stratford, but Burgess said they offer regular transportation back and forth to assist with housing search-related activities.

There is collaboration amongst the agencies representing justice, police, social services, addictions and mental health agencies,  and the health sector dealing with homelessness in the county.

“There is a proactive outreach and connection of services that occurs when it comes to unsheltered homelessness specifically,” said Burgess. “There is cleaning maintenance and support and then what we are always trying … to prevent individuals from ever becoming homeless in the first place.”

He explained social services’ role, and they offer several different prevention and housing stability services beyond the emergency accommodations program.

“We also have proactive outreach to our unsheltered individuals … and provision of basic needs and financial support through our Ontario Works program … and housing allowances available through our housing division,” said Burgess.

The biggest thing he wanted to mention was if people see an individual sleeping rough in Perth County, they should call the social services department at 519-271-3773 ext. 200 and advise the staff member that they are reporting an encampment.

“What we will do is we will take the appropriate information including the location, a brief physical description of the site, the number of individuals,” said Burgess. “If you have photos, we may request those to have an idea of exactly where we are going. We are not asking that you go and take photos of an individual, especially without their knowledge.”

Stratford social services also receive regular updates from municipal staff, the OPP and partner agencies regarding active or potential encampments.

“If there is an immediate safety concern at any point or you feel your safety is threatened, we ask you to contact the OPP 1-888-310-1122 or through 911 if there is an immediate safety risk … that’s not just for individuals experiencing homelessness,” said Burgess. Social services staff also proactive outreach completing regular walkabouts of known encampment locations attempting to engage with the individuals.

“The regularity of visits and how often we are up there depends on the individual cases and also the individual’s willingness to work with us,” he said. “I do want to highlight that our programs are voluntary, and there is no mandatory part of our programs.”

When they are made aware of individuals experiencing homelessness, they respond within 72 hours.

“Our focus is to provide a compassionate and caring response when we do meet with those individuals,” said Burgess. “We want to start with making sure basic needs are met and that the individuals are connected to our local by name list and then review eligibility for applicable services. Then we do look at things like emergency accommodations or financial supports that are available and then start making referrals to community agencies that can help support these individuals.”

The biggest thing he said they try to do in outreach is to protect and promote the well-being and safety of both those unsheltered and public members.

“If we see obvious safety concerns in the encampment, we will work with the individuals staying there to try to address them and then complete regular meetings and follow up with them after to ensure that those items are being addressed,” said Burgess.

During check-ins at encampments, they have a few different things they focus on, such as cleaning, maintenance and support.

“Again, it is a voluntary program,” he said. “We cannot impose any restrictions related to cleanliness, but we do our best to work with the individuals staying there to address safety concerns and concerns related to clutter or garbage at the encampment. We do provide necessary supplies, and as I said, we make referrals to individuals to ensure they can maintain their encampment safely and suitably.”

When an encampment becomes inactive, it can be unsafe due to leftover garbage and other items.

“When an encampment is identified as inactive, and we know the individual has secured alternate accommodations, we will work with that individual to try to have them remove all of their belongings,” said Burgess. “If they are unable to remove them all, we will contact the applicable department at the municipality to request the encampment is cleaned up within an appropriate time frame.”

Some of the programs designed to prevent people from ending up living rough are financial assistance, including help with arrears, short-term housing allowances, providing last month’s rent on new rentals, assistance with moving, and furniture costs.

Coun. Lee Anne Andriessen asked if North Perth was experiencing more homelessness than other similar-sized communities.

“In your first slide, you said it seems to be rising, but are we seeing any difference in the work that we are doing – are we seeing an impact?” She asked.

“I would say we’re quite comparable to communities of our size looking at Perth County with our most recent enumeration numbers,” said Burgess. “We had 118 surveys completed, and with those, we don’t have a specific location attached to them. Our local by-name list has grown a bit, and we are up to about 169 individuals experiencing homelessness across all of Perth County.”

Mayor Todd Kasenberg noted an increased visible presence of homelessness, especially rough homelessness in the community.

“Certainly, at times, it has proven to be challenging to maintain a position that is both compassionate and fair to everybody,” he said. “When I say that, I guess what I am kind of saying is that there are times when we see encampments that are untidy that reflect poorly on the community aesthetic and sometimes reflect poorly on hygiene.”

He acknowledged there is tension in the community because of that.

“There are local individuals who call, report and send emails to myself and other members of council asking why we are tolerant of that and why aren’t we enforcing property standards bylaws,” said Kasenberg. “I’m wondering if you have suggestions for us about how we can … establish an approach that strikes a balance and finds a good, wise place between those concerned we’re not being vigilant in our duties to enforce (bylaws) and those who desire us to be compassionate.”

McElroy repeated that one of the challenges is a voluntary program.

“If they are actively engaging with our outreach workers, then we do case planning,” she said. “The goal ideally is they are not living rough very long.”

Burgess said it’s tough to balance ensuring a humane and compassionate response and putting some standards and safety measures in place.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to look at ensuring there are some basic levels of safety you want to see at the encampments.”

Manager of Ontario Works, Alex Burgess.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to look at ensuring there are some basic levels of safety you want to see at the encampments,” he said. “I know our outreach staff will have those conversations regularly about how they can make the space safer knowing that these are in public spaces.”

He suggested bylaw enforcement could be involved in that conversation, attending the encampments with the outreach team.

“We’d be happy to support you further. Just try to find a way to make that work,” said Burgess. “I would say that is something communities across the province are currently struggling with. It’s not something we can ask. It’s voluntary, so we can’t always succeed in that avenue, but there is importance to ensuring safety in the space and compassionate response for the individuals. I don’t think they are opposite from one another, and I think they can go hand in hand in supporting an individual sleeping rough.”

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