Poverty and homelessness are provincial responsibilities and should be election issues, panellists say

GUELPH – The pandemic has shone a light on the challenges faced by people who live in poverty or homelessness and the upcoming provincial election is an opportunity to make real change.

That was the overriding message from the first of the Informed Democracy series the Guelph Wellington Coalition for Social Justice held virtually on Feb. 16.

“The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the gaping holes in the social service network,” said Dominica McPherson, director of the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, who was one of four panellists at the event.

“These issues were not created by the pandemic. The pandemic has only made things worse.”

McPherson said the current social services network only serves to keep people in a cycle of poverty. People on Ontario Works receive $730 a month while a basic living wage in Guelph and Wellington has been calculated at $2,500 a month.

At $15 an hour, people working minimum wage jobs just don’t have enough to keep up with increasing rent, food, and hydro costs.

“You can’t just tell them to budget better. There needs to be big change,” she said. “And big change is possible. It just takes political will.”

We saw that during the pandemic, she said, when the government issued CERB cheques to people who couldn’t work during lockdowns.

Those payments were $2,000 a month and for so many people it was more than what they earned working multiple jobs.

“A basic income gives people the ability to get by,” she said. “Poverty is exhausting and makes people sick.”

Gail Hoekstra is the executive director of Stepping Stone, formerly the Drop In Centre in downtown Guelph, the agency that provides emergency housing for homeless people in Guelph.

She said when the pandemic began, they shifted operations, making the drop in centre an overnight shelter and moving daytime services to Hope House and the Royal City Mission.

Stepping Stone runs several programs: 

– Diversion and rapid housing – for individuals and families at risk of homelessness. Staff find housing and offer some supports. Sometimes rent supplements are available

– Housing focus street outreach – outreach workers get to know the homeless population, check in on them, and help find stable housing;

– Shelter program – Hoekstra said they have been able to double their capacity again at shelters and haven’t had to turn anyone away.

– Housing stability team – these folks help people as they transition to housing. Hoekstra said many people need support for six months to a year after moving into housing as they learn how to live independently again;

– Permanent supportive housing – this is the new facility to be constructed in Guelph called Grace Gardens that will have around-the-clock supports for people who have been homeless for years.

“Housing with this group is not as much about brick and mortar but the supports around them,” Hoekstra said. “If they don’t have that, housing falls apart.”

Kate Nixon is still in university, but she’s part of a group called Your Downtown Guelph Friends, who provide food, blankets, clothing and toiletries to the homeless and housing insecure.

Nixon said some of these people are drug-addicted and therefore don’t qualify for social housing programs.

“An overwhelming amount of homeless are substance dependent. They have little chance of getting housing. And tent evictions, by police and bylaw, force people to live nomadically. We are not providing any alternative,” she said.

Sheila Markle, the fourth panellist, is the executive director of Family and Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington County and CEO of Kindle Communities Inc.

Kindle owns and operates the Shelldale Centre in Guelph and a few years ago Skyline donated the property next to the centre for supportive housing.

That project is still in the works, but Markle said once they get through all the building and construction hurdles, the big one remaining is funding for those supports.

“The province has a huge role in supporting a basic income and making sure supportive housing has the staff it needs to offer that support. The government holds the purse strings,” she said.

The panellists fielded questions specific to their operations and generally about what the province can do to help.

They all said instituting a basic income and making housing a basic right are the two avenues that will have the most impact in alleviating homelessness and poverty.

“We have to care about each other,” Markle said. “Not caring costs a lot of money.

“The government is paying one way or another. Why not fund earlier in the spectrum.”

There are three more sessions in the Informed Democracy series:

March 9 is about Healthcare;

April 6- Education;

April 20- Environment and Climate Change;

For more information, email informeddemocracyseries@gmail.com.