Guelph’s Housing Advocates Lay Out the Pre-Election Stakes in Town Hall

There’s a provincial election coming this spring. You may be aware of that, but the Guelph-Wellington Coalition for Social Justice is definitely aware of it, and on Wednesday night they launched a series of events meant to prep the electorate by talking about what are likely to be some of the biggest issues of the 2022 Provincial Election. Topic number one was homelessness and poverty, and the all-star panel is eager to end them for good.

Dominica McPherson, the director of the Guelph-Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, said that the time was ripe for a fulsome discussion about poverty and homelessness, not just because it was an election year, but because nearly two years of a global pandemic has laid bare the holes in the system that created those issues in the first place.

“We know that the issues people are struggling with did not get created by the pandemic. People were struggling to make ends meet, pay rent, cover the cost of medication or feed their children before this started,” McPherson said.

“I think it’s fair to say that the pandemic has been hard on all of us, but it’s been especially hard on people living on low incomes,” she added. “When we think about who falls through the gaps most often, and who has been failed most by our system, it’s women, racialized people, Indigenous people, newcomers and people with disabilities.”

Stepping Stone executive director Gail Hoekstra said that her organization has answered the challenges of the pandemic by taking a more multi-facet approach in dealing with homelessness in Guelph, and the reasons people end up homeless in the first place. The biggest example of this change in direction is Grace Gardens, one of several new supportive housing projects to be approved in the last year.

“We say that our goal is housing and health stability, because housing is not just about four walls, and it is not about bricks and mortars, it is about the support attached to create a path towards health stability and peace of well being,” Hoeksta said. “If you don’t have that, the risk is coming back into homelessness because your housing is not stable it and falls apart. We want to think of that entire continuum and target all of our resources towards it.”

Kate Nixon of Your Downtown Guelph Friends also noted mental health, but she also noted the stress on the well-being of people when they’re suddenly forced to move from the places they may be living rough. “I have seen many community members come to our table after a very difficult night, forced out of a place where they’ve been able to make a home for themselves,” Nixon explained.

“We have folks coming into a nomadic lifestyle because they’re being forced to, and they leave behind things like winter gear. I don’t think I need to go into detail as to why that’s dangerous,” she added. “Meeting people where they are is crucial, and so is allowing people to have autonomy over what services they need, what help they need, and recognizing that the only people who are experts on what they need are the people requiring the services.”

Sheila Markle, the executive director of Family & Children’s Services of Guelph and Wellington, noted that stable housing is the first step in starting to solve numerous other problems. “When all your energies are going towards where do I sleep? And what am I going to eat today? How do you possibly address your physical or mental health issues, or work, or go to school, or address the other things in your life when all your energy is being consumed by homelessness?” Markle said.

Markle is also the CEO of Kindle Communities, which is establishing its own supportive housing development in the city’s west end, and she noted the importance of aesthetics in designing a project that looks beautiful and enhances the neighbourhood while giving people in need a place to live.

“We’ve been really intentional about the finishes, and even the brick on the exterior, to make this a building that’s going to last and that’s going to be beautiful,” Markle said. “It says that we care about you, we care about this community, and we want you to have a beautiful place to live.”

These ideas challenge traditional views of how to deal with homelessness, and the panelists have noted they’ve seen a shift in community response lately.

“When I started out 10 years ago thinking we’ve gotta find housing, I went all sorts of city council meetings and the tone of people against those projects, the NIMBY crowd, really took over the conversation,” Hoekstra said. “To change that conversation so that it’s not discriminatory and is really focused on the process instead has shifted things. City council has been very supportive and helped through the process.”

“Obviously, I think more can be done, but there have been some really tangible things because of the commitments that were made a couple years ago as a result of the advocacy, lots of delegations and feeling like a broken record,” McPherson added. “Thanks to the leadership of city council, some of these pieces are coming to fruition, so I just want to acknowledge how far things can go when elected officials are willing to be brave, and when we show that there’s community support.”

“We have to care about each other, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but not caring about people costs a lot of money,” Markle said. “The government’s paying one way or the other, and for the life of me, after 35 years in my career, I don’t understand why we’re still funding things at the late end of the spectrum and not the earlier end of the spectrum. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Being homeless is a full time job. I am often shocked about the number of tasks there are in a day, and you oftentimes don’t recognize just how difficult it is to be unhoused,” Nixon added. “There are so many barriers in place, and housing would be fundamental at a policy level. Supportive housing for everyone that does not discriminate, and then from there, we do things like safe supply, food security programming, and other things like that.”

“I think we can do it. We have the needs, and the funds to do it, it’s just a matter of the prioritization of funds,” Nixon said.

The next town hall event hosted by the Guelph-Wellington Coalition for Social Justice is on March 9, and the topic will be rebuilding the healthcare system. There will be two more town halls in April with an event about education on April 6 and another about the climate crisis on April 20.

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