The reasons for homelessness are a complex mix of human service, health and economic issues. The COVID-19 global pandemic changed the way we live, work, learn and interact with others. Although many of us have returned to the office and most kids are back in the classroom, there are some major effects that are visible in our communities.
Closures during the pandemic highlighted a population with nowhere to go. Without a home to isolate in or drop-in programs to attend, many of our most vulnerable were left to wander the streets. Those fortunate enough to have a cell phone often were often unable to charge it. Washroom facilities were only open at certain hours of the day. Those without credit cards and vehicles could not shop and do curbside pick-up.
Fast forward to today, and we see the effects of two years of reduced in-person health and social services, widespread social isolation, and intense inflation on both housing and food costs. A spotlight has been shone on homelessness as a critical issue.
Now that agencies and drop-in centers have opened, people have access to in-person support, yet the number of people wandering our streets is astonishing to the public. While most people don’t wish harm on the less fortunate, they do want them to take the help that is offered and disappear- frustration can arise when those experiencing homelessness are resistant to services and disrupt communities. Those working with the street entrenched are confused and frustrated at times. If agency leads and Social Service staff are scratching their heads, you can be certain that those experiencing homelessness are feeling a greater level of frustration.
Below are new initiatives to help those experiencing homelessness:
Many Ontario municipalities have hubs in their communities where food, medical care, and a variety of supports can be accessed by those in need. People without access to a doctor can receive wound care, foot care, addiction support and receive needed prescriptions. They can eat a hot meal and take warm clothing, blankets, and pantry items with them. Most hubs have showers and washrooms.
Members of the community are encouraged to donate goods or volunteer to help. Yet as demand increases and these hubs are busy and bustling with those in need, some with high acuity who are waiting in lines or lingering outside for services can be disruptive. Local residents and businesses may experience issues related to drug use, abandoned shopping carts, increased garbage and the behaviours of vulnerable people with mental illness and addiction. This causes a lack of well-being and economic issues for the community, creating a desire to relocate hubs and the homeless to other places - outside city centres or just out of view.
Groups of trained individuals walk around neighbourhood streets and parks to engage vulnerable populations. They hand out water and snacks, blankets and socks while attempting to build trust and encourage a connection to a community agency.
When people living in encampments are disrupted and forced to ‘move along’, outreach teams can have a much harder time locating those in need of services. It’s not uncommon for those in tent cities to be dismantled abruptly or told to "go into a wooded area" where they won’t be noticed as easily by local By-Law Officers.
These specially trained officers work in areas frequented by the homeless and try to prevent trouble and encourage compliance with rules and regulations. The biggest barriers here are that the homeless play by a set of their own rules, that make sense in their world. Enforcement and Health Care legislation often don’t quite fit the needs of the homeless.
Some municipalities have tried to help the homeless by creating sanctioned, organized, regulated encampments while others adamantly oppose the concept. The support staff on-site ensure they are on the By-Name/housing eligibility list in their area.
There are rules and expected behaviours and, in turn, there are basic services available. People have mixed feelings about this. It’s not proper housing, but it is an option that can be applied by a community that recognizes putting the homeless indoors without their agreement is not an option. We will look to Waterloo to see their outcomes after a few months of being in operation.
There are a number of housing first teams at many community agencies. They provide intensive case management for the unhoused who also require support with services such as:
Often, the homeless piece is the most challenging and with higher rents and fewer available units, this has only become more difficult.
Durham Region Social Services decided to springboard off these and other existing initiatives to further support the community and take a unique approach to support the homeless population. A small, specialized team of staff from our Income and Employment Supports Division was formed in 2021 and called the Community Support Program. It started as a pilot with two case workers and one supervisor, and quickly grew to four case workers. This team is based in the community and works with members of our homeless population with the highest acuity from our By-Name List.
The Community Support team is comprised of staff who previously worked primarily with Ontario Works clients. This team now works with clients receiving any income source and attempts to bridge gaps in service. We also collaborate and work closely with our community partners, including Housing First teams, health agencies, hubs, shelters and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) staff.
This has been such a unique opportunity to ‘walk alongside’ our clients and truly experience the struggles, delays and barriers faced regularly when trying to obtain services and support. We have made changes and, as necessary, advocated for adequate medical care, correct financial benefits, timely addiction support and fair court processes, etc. We stand beside them as they negotiate with landlords and attempt to secure housing.
Providing a night’s hotel stay and an opportunity to shower, sleep in a bed and wear an outfit new to them has made a difference when viewing possible rental opportunities. Some of the clients we work with have been homeless for a number of years and are intimidated and anxious around those who work and have positions of power. I can honestly say that this team has far exceeded my expectations! They have built trust and meaningful relationships with the people they serve. They have been lucky enough to hear their stories and learn about their dreams and goals. The first person housed by our team, has remained in his apartment for over two years! Others have secured senior housing, successfully graduated from transitional housing to independent living or negotiated rental agreements with private landlords. Most are connected to peer support, and food stability programs, and have taken steps to improve their health and wellness. This is certainly something to celebrate!
While we started out doing our best to support our client group by having each caseworker do every aspect of this role, we continually improve our process. We recently developed a phased approach to improve the program. It includes a name change from Community Support Program to the Transitional Support Program as that identifies the movement and growth that takes place.
Durham Region also has a Micro-Homes pilot of 10 modular housing units. This team has been instrumental in providing regular, consistent contact and support to this initiative as well and the Micro-Homes of today look quite different than they did when we first launched them. Intakes flow directly from transitional housing providers in Durham Region; those ready to move into a micro-home have been determined to be ready to live alone with minimal support. Anyone who regresses or may have moved into a micro-home prematurely, they are supported to move to alternate housing, including other transitional living spaces and may be considered for a micro-home again in the future.
This article highlights that while a great deal of work has been done across Ontario to combat homelessness, we still have a lot of work to do. And some of the work needs done from the top down. Funding from Ottawa and the Province need to make it to the front line, where we are seeing a shortage of affordable housing.
It’s not OK that shelters and hospitals are full, and people are dying on Canadian streets. It’s not OK that parents and kids are living in cars. It’s not OK that food banks are seeing a rise in new people accessing items to feed their families.
We can do better. We must do better.
Jocelyn Siciliano is a supervisor with Durham Region Social Services. During her 30-year career, her focus has been to improve services for vulnerable populations, including those experiencing gender-based violence. Jocelyn was part of a small team that developed a protocol for Ontario Work‘s response to Domestic Violence in the early 1990s and continues to deliver training to both entry-level and seasoned staff.
Since 2018, her primary role has been as an anti-human trafficking advocate, establishing Human Trafficking Response teams in every local Ontario Works office in Durham Region. She also developed a protocol for responding to trafficking victims, a tool kit to guide conversations and a partnership with community agencies, including Victim Services of Durham Region and Durham Regional Police Services. Jocelyn is a member of the Durham Human Trafficking coalition and has provided training on this topic within Social Services as well as in the community.
She is the recipient of a Durham Award of Excellence for Service Excellence for her work in human trafficking. In the fall of 2020, Jocelyn was a member of the Canadian team that attended an event on Human Trafficking in Vicenza, Italy. This simulation exercise involved 7 countries and was through the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE).