Winter is coming. It’s a cheap joke and a reference to one of TV’s biggest hits, but to a group called Your Downtown Guelph Friends it’s a reminder that there are a lot of people who fear the winter months because they live on the street. On Saturday, the Keep Our Friends Warm Rally sought to made the idea loud and clear, that the City’s not doing enough to get people the shelter they need.
“Keeping our friends warm means three things: advocacy, support, and materials,” said organizer Kate Nixon. “We gather today to in-take materials from the community that will help make living on the streets less awful. Blankets, pillows, mitts, shoes, and hot meals will help alleviate some of the cold, and we are so thankful for all the lovely donors we’ve had. You’re making a difference in the lives of many.”
Nixon was critical of city council and Mayor Cam Guthrie saying that it’s been almost a year since the mayor convened his task force on homelessness, and not much has changed on downtown streets. She said that the emergency is still very real for homeless people who still face many barriers to even being able to access basic assistance.
“I know a woman who stays up every night in fear of being raped because she has nowhere to take shelter, I know a man who walked to the shelter for hours and was told he missed curfew, but he could sleep on the porch. This is inexcusable and unacceptable to city that prides itself on being so good to its citizens,” Nixon said.
“Even as I walked downtown to this rally, I’m seeing all of these empty storefronts that if someone were to sleep in them, they’d be arrested,” she added. “A building gets more protections than a living living human being.”
Donny Hay, who’s been advocating for the creation of a medical detox centre in town, said that there needs to be room for healing in Guelph, and that we need to recognize that homelessness is just one part of the greater problem.
“Mental health, addictions, homelessness, they all interlock, and I chose to advocate for a medical detox and treatment centre because it gets at the grass root of the problem,” Hay said. “Is it the be all, end all? Absolutely not, but it’s a good start.”
Hay called on recovering addicts like himself to speak out, and make their voices heard about the need.
“More people from all economic and social backgrounds – rich, poor, it doesn’t matter – we need a lot of them to come out here and say, ‘Listen, I’m recovering, this is my story, and this is how I overcame it,'” he said. “I think once people start doing that, the powers that be are going to have no choice but to listen, and hopefully, they’ll do something about it.”
Tina Brophey, who has lived experience being homeless herself, also had the message that her life story could happen to anyone. Her father was a corporate executive, she graduated from college and became a social worker, but she still ended up on the streets. Brophey said we’ve got to re-think what poverty looks like.
“People have pictures of what a homeless guy is, people have pictures of poverty in their heads, it’s the guy with the cardboard box sign that says ‘Would like some spare change,'” Brophey said. “That’s a piece of poverty for sure, and that’s a man, but the other face of poverty is the people that are working at the Tim Hortons for minimum wage.”
Brophey said that she “slept rough” during her time homeless, and though Guelph is a nice place to sleep outside, no one is doing it by choice, and it is not like camping. Camping, she said, is something that you do when you have money.
“We need affordable housing and not we’re not talking 80 per cent of market rent, we’re talking affordable for adults living in poverty,” she added. “I’m hoping that you guys will all realize that the face of homelessness can be every face around you, and support the programs that we’re talking about.”
“This is something that’s needed. Homeless people are people first and homeless second,” Brophey said.
Regular council delegate Susan Watson said that this is the perfect time for people concerned about poverty and homelessness in the community to turn up the pressure because council is hearing presentations and delegations about the 2020 budget. “This is the time to ask for money which is needed to run all of these things,” she said.
“Over the next 10 years, they’re going to be spending $80 million on houses, but that subsidy is going to middle and upper income homebuyers because across the province growth doesn’t pay for itself,” Watson said, repeating a point she made at a recent council meeting.
“It’s just mind-blowing to me that there’s over 100 people on the By-Name List, living on the street, but we’re subsidizing middle and upper income housing to the tune of $80 million, which tells me it’s not a lack of resources,” she added.
In terms of substantive action from the City, the Supportive Recovery Room, which was one of the initiatives to come out of the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness, opened last week on the second floor of the Welcome In Drop In Centre, and an update on Harm Reduction Housing will be coming to Committee of the Whole on Monday.
You can check out the full video of the rally below: