County hosts second health, housing symposium in Guelph

Walton: 'radical collaboration' needed to address ongoing housing crisis

GUELPH – An unprecedented housing crisis is happening in Guelph, Wellington County and Canada at large.

The number of homeless people is growing rapidly, and there aren’t enough resources to go around. 

That’s why the county organized two recent health and housing symposiums to discuss solutions.

The key message? A collaborative approach is essential. 

“We have a choice: succeed together, or fail together,” said Wellington County social services administrator and symposium organizer Luisa Artuso. 

Unlike the first symposium in January, members of the press were permitted to attend the April 17 event in the grand ballroom at the Guelph Delta Hotel. 

Symposium speakers included Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH) Medical Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer, Wellington County director of housing Mark Poste and Guelph General Hospital president and CEO Mark Walton. 

Two people who’ve experienced homelessness, Ame Papatsie and Jason Schwartzentruber, also spoke during the event, and Wilfrid Laurier University professor Dr. Erin Dej and City of Windsor manager of homelessness Kelly Goz made presentations.

When asked about the price of the symposium, and where the money for it will come from, county officials said it would be a month before the total cost could be confirmed, and they were not willing to provide an estimated cost in the meantime. 

Open your hearts

Papatsie welcomed attendees and offered his view as an Inuk person who knows how homelessness feels. 

From his perspective, the last homeless family cared for by society lived long ago: Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

But now, 2,000 years later, Papatsie urged attendees to open their hearts to homeless people once more.

“We are in a dilemma,” he said. “We need to start working together – or else we will fall apart.

“Stop the finger-pointing and blaming.”

He urged officials to be accountable to one another, listen, and “don’t be afraid to say what you think needs to be heard.”

Next time he speaks with a homeless person, Papatsie hopes he can tell them “we are working on it.”

Looking around the room, Papatsie said, “I really have a lot of belief in you right now … We are going to solve this problem.” 

‘A safe place to lay your head’ 

Schwartzentruber shared his own story, beginning with growing up on a Wellington County farm.

“We had everything we needed,” he said, but one thing led to another and in early adulthood Schwartzentruber found himself without a place to live. 

“I had to carry every single thing I owned,” he said, while maintaining his job and finding somewhere to store his belongings during work hours. 

He slept in the TTC and under a bridge, and within weeks Schwartzentruber said it was clear he was struggling.

A coworker asked if he had a place to live, but Schwartzentruber said he was “too arrogant” to ask for help, until eventually he caved, calling his mom.

“She picked me up, and back to the farm I go,” he said. 

He got back on his feet, and working at an automotive factory enabled him to rent a three bedroom apartment in Palmerston.

But an inspection revealed the building he lived in was not up to code, and he was given seven days to get out.

“That’s not enough time,” he said. “Most people can’t even pack up their stuff in seven days.”

So Schwartzentruber went back to the farm. Then he slept on couches at two of his sisters’ homes. But these temporary options ran their course and he wound up living in Guelph’s shelter system. 

From there, he experienced stigma while trying to find a place to rent, as he said landlords were reluctant to rent to someone in his position. 

Schwartzentruber said his story is an example of how people get “pushed hard into the system.”

And the prolonged stress of not having a safe place to sleep will drive people crazy, he added.

That’s why he’s “a firm advocate for an abundance of deeply affordable housing,” whether that’s structural encampments, tiny homes, or dorm-style bunk houses.

Ensuring people have a safe place to lay their heads will “make a difference,” Schwartzentruber assured.   

‘Not enough resources’

Though individual stories are important, it’s essential to understand that the causes of homelessness reach far beyond individual struggles, professor Dej said during her keynote address. 

“The number of people experiencing homelessness and the depth of need cannot be blamed solely, or even primarily, on individual or relational issues,” she said.

Instead, it’s necessary to consider the structural and systemic causes of homelessness, including policies and legislation, the lack of affordable housing, limited program eligibility, and barriers to accessing support. 

Homelessness in Canada increased by 20 per cent between 2018 and 2022, Dej said.

That includes unhoused people sleeping on couches and in shelters, hospitals, prisons and jails.

“Unsheltered homelessness” increased by 88% – that’s people living on the streets and in alleys, parks, transit stations, abandoned buildings, encampments, vehicles and other outdoor spaces. 

And there aren’t enough resources to respond, Dej said.

Wellington housing director Poste said the biggest problems are a lack of both affordable social housing and health services. 

In Guelph and Wellington there are 3,183 people on waitlists for social housing and 3,600 social housing units, he said, meaning people wait between four and eight years for a unit.

Even if they have “special priority,” such as people escaping domestic violence or human trafficking, they can still expect to wait more than a year.

Five years ago, the waitlist had “just shy of 2,000 people,” Poste noted.

And people living in social housing are staying longer, because “no one wants to expose themselves to the private housing market” and risk facing homelessness, he said. 

Under current market conditions, too many people can’t afford a home, the panelists agreed.

An individual receiving social assistance in Ontario (Ontario Works) gets $733 a month, Poste said. That’s for rent, food, toiletries, utilities, transportation, and anything else they need.

“Renting a one-bedroom apartment costs over $2,000 – the math just doesn’t add up,” he said. 

In Wellington County, 6% of people are low income, Mercer added, and in Guelph it’s 8%.

Municipalities should invest in these low-income communities, she said, noting the best transit, bike lanes, sidewalks, and childcare spaces should be in those neighbourhoods, “so people can get to work.” 

And access to primary care helps connect people to the services they need, but 12,000 people in Wellington, Guelph and Dufferin do not have a primary care provider – an issue disproportionately affecting those with lower incomes, Mercer added.

She said municipalities should work to bring more family doctors into local communities. 

“We don’t have to wait for the province to give us money,” she said. “We can make choices in our community.” 

Guelph hospital president Walton said many people end up in hospital emergency rooms because they are not able to access health care when they need it – before it becomes an emergency. 

And some people stay in hospital for years, “because there is no other place for them to go.”

These patients –  those who can’t be discharged from the hospital solely because they have nowhere else to go – take up a quarter of the beds at Guelph General Hospital, Walton said. 

‘Radical collaboration’

“Poverty affects us all,” Mercer said, urging symposium attendees to make choices that improve the lives of the homeless and people at risk of homelessness.

“We have to think creatively and differently,” she added. 

Poste stressed that service providers in different organizations need to advocate collectively.

In Walton’s words, “radical collaboration” is needed. “Let’s cut the bullshit and get some stuff done,” he said.  

After the panel discussion and keynote speakers, symposium participants broke into groups and spent the afternoon in conversation about what that collaboration and those creative choices will look like.

At the end of the day, Artuso said “this is just the beginning,” and noted a community plan will be created “based on trust and relationships.”

She said there will be another symposium in a year or two, and “it will be really interesting to see … Did we move the needle forward?”