Shelters remain over capacity as temperatures drop

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Colin Reid

Shaun Ding

SAFE HAVEN. Colin Reid, a 43-year-old Woodstock, Ontario native, has been staying at the Unity Project For The Relief Of Homelessness in London for the past 42 days. Reid lost his job in June when the meatpacking plant he worked for went bankrupt and has been unable to find work since.

Ron, a 48-year-old London native, has slept in a variety of undesirable locations: in fields, on park benches and under bridges to name a few.

“One night I slept in an alley under a canvas in the rain,” he began. “It was raining so hard that it started to get really humid in the canvas " I felt like I was suffocating. It was much more comfortable to just lie down in the alley in the rain.”

Ron, who requested to have his last name omitted, is not unlike approximately 1,500 other people in London who are jobless, penniless and homeless.

“A lot of the homeless in the city have gotten to a point where it’s just a game of survival everyday,” community support worker Matti Paquiz said. “Day-to-day all you think about is, ‘Where am I going to eat? Where am I going to sleep?’”

London’s shelters have become so crowded that every emergency shelter in the city was full and, in some cases, accommodating more people than beds on Monday night when temperatures dipped below -12 degrees Celsius.

At the Men’s Mission on York Street, occupancy hovers around the 90 per cent mark throughout the year, according to executive director Gordon Russell.

“We’re a 146 bed shelter and [Monday night] the occupancy was 152,” Russell said. “We typically set up extra people in the lounges with couches and roll-out cots.”

Just around the corner at The Centre of Hope " a 287-bed facility opened on Wellington Street in 2005 by the Salvation Army " the emergency “crash beds” were all taken and 96 per cent of the massive building was occupied.

“At this time of year we always have an increase in traffic because of the weather,” the Centre’s executive director, Major Neil P. Lewis, said. “It’s been so cold this year we’ve had a bigger increase than usual " we’re definitely over what we usually budget for.”

Meanwhile, the Unity Project For Relief Of Homelessness in London " where Ron has been living since the beginning of the month after being evicted from his last apartment " currently operates at 140 per cent capacity, which is hardly unusual for the shelter, according to its general manager Chuck Lazenby.

“We tend to fluctuate between 120 per cent and 140 per cent throughout the year,” Lazenby says.

“Our physical resources are certainly stretched. We tend to relax our policies during the wintertime ... we let people stay in longer who would typically be asked to leave during the summer.”

Accommodating more than the shelter can hold has not affected the shelter’s service according to Colin Reid, who has been staying at Unity for 42 days.

“I love this place, it’s awesome,” Reid said. “These people will help you out with whatever you need. You just have to pull your weight a bit " everybody chips in and does what they can.

Reid lost his job of over 11 years last June when the meat processing plant he worked for in Waterloo went bankrupt. Since then he has been living on the street, waiting for the cold weather to pass so that he can hitchhike to British Columbia, where he hopes to find work.

“I went in to work one Monday and there were bank statements all over the place and the doors were all chained up,” Reid said. “I lost everything I ever had.”

Reid’s story is not unique. Thousands of workers across the province have been laid off this fall and fiscal forecasts predict that economic circumstances are going to get much worse before they get any better. The surge of Ontarians plunging below the poverty line stands to severely stretch a shelter system that is already bursting at its seams.

“How many more people who are not currently experiencing the levels of poverty that would cause them to access shelters are now going to be in that position?” Lazenby questioned. “It’s really scary because there are not enough resources to address the amount of poverty we deal with now, let alone if everything gets worse.”

The financial pinch is certainly being felt at Ark Aid, a 25-year-old mission just down the street from Unity that offers free computer and money management courses to disadvantaged adults in London.

Ark Aid’s executive director Jim Fraser, who raises every penny of the mission’s funding by himself, noted that Ark Aid’s donations have been way down since the economic downturn.

“This Christmas we were way under budget because of the economy and we’re really going to hurt over the next few months,” Fraser said.

Ark Aid relies heavily on volunteer services and small-business donations to sustain its operations.

The city’s homelessness funding is primarily aimed at emergency overnight shelters, a service that Ark Aid does not provide. Officials at both Unity and the Men’s Mission cited the City of London as one of their primary money streams, which they supplement with various fundraising campaigns.

“We have to raise $150,000 every year and we meet that goal, but it takes an incredible amount of hard work,” Lazenby said.

“We could always use more resources,” Russell added. “I think that is true to say of any shelter anywhere because we’re always looking for ways to assist the homeless in a better way.”

Despite the dwindling funds, finances often take a back seat during the winter period, especially when the city issues a cold weather alert as they did Monday night. The priority for both shelters and the city quickly becomes getting people off the streets.

“Harsh weather makes the challenges associated with poverty and homelessness even harder,” Stephen Giustizia, one of London’s community services managers, said. “Our shelters are currently full, which is normal in a situation like this. They do not turn anyone away.”

Giustizia stressed the importance of the four city-sanctioned “safe havens” " drop-in centres where the homeless can rest and eat during the day, as well as have access to city-trained support workers who can help those who are suffering from addiction take the first step towards recovery.

“The safe haven services have been vital,” Giustizia said. “We needed to focus on connecting with the [homeless] through ... street level workers.”

The safe havens were implemented under the London CAReS program which the city launched last June. The program receives $3.8 million of funding annually.

“A program like this needs to be very agile. A big part of the program has been engaging people that we serve and engaging the community,” Giustizia said.

London CAReS has reported over 20,000 visits to their safe haven sites. However, those who live with homelessness everyday have yet to feel the effects of the new program.

“The City of London told me that as long as I was staying in a shelter, that’s all they could do for me,” Reid said.

“The city really hasn’t done anything for me,” Ron added. “The city needs to open a big addiction treatment centre because most of the people that are out here are addicted to something, whether it’s drugs or the slots.”

According to research done by London CAReS in 2007, approximately 40 per cent of London’s homeless suffer from addiction or mental health issues.

However, interviews with those who work and interact with the homeless on a daily basis revealed different figures.

“We’re seeing at least 85 per cent of our residents who are suffering from addiction and mental health issues,” Lazenby said. “And, that could be a low estimate.”

At the Men’s Mission, approximately 40 per cent suffer from mental health issues and 60 per cent suffer from addiction and substance abuse, according to Russell. He blamed low funding from all levels of government for the addiction and mental health pandemic.

“The problem is that many of our services concerning those issues are not designed for long-term treatment, they’re designed for a very short-term treatment. Somebody who has spent 10 to 20 years dealing with addiction ... is not going to be released from that vice and move beyond it in just four months,” Russell said.

Giustizia said the city was doing its best to curb the problems and added London has recently hired an addictions outreach worker to operate under the London CAReS program.

The lack of affordable housing in London is also one of the biggest roadblocks to getting people out of shelters.

“We have revolving door shelter users who are chronically homeless. Usually they go to one shelter until they get kicked out and then move onto the next one and the next one,” Paquiz said. “Affordable housing is the answer to the shelters, which are really just band-aids.”

“The city needs to introduce bylaws which would mandate new residential developments to include more affordable housing. Right now we have nowhere to send people " they don’t have places to rent, there’s not a lot of places available and they’re waiting on the housing lists for months,” Lazenby added.

Giustizia revealed the $3.8 million London granted for London CAReS was also intended to be leveraged against provincial and federal funding for projects such as affordable housing. To date, both governments have yet to provide money.

“The provincial and federal governments need to come to the table with funding for affordable housing,” Giustizia asserted. “People are spending far too much of their income on housing.”

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