Delayed one year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, staff from Wellington County and the Guelph-Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination presented the results from the latest Point in Time Count on Wednesday. Conducted over two days last October, the Point in Time Count gives the community a snap shot of homelessness in our area, and despite the challenges of the pandemic, the count is heading in the right direction.
“The survey was conducted over a two day period across Guelph and Wellington County as part of a co-ordinated Canada-wide effort to survey individuals that are experiencing homelessness,” explained Lori Richer, the Housing Stability Manager at Wellington County.
“This snapshot is going to include an estimate of the number of people experiencing homelessness on that given day as well as information about certain demographic characteristics and information about the needs of people experiencing homelessness.”
Notably, the overall number of people experiencing homelessness in Guelph has gone down from 325 in the 2018 count to 270 in 2021. According to the PiT report, the results may have been influenced by the way the survey was carried out; instead of three days and 100 volunteers like in 2018 there were just two days and 70 volunteers in 2021. Like any PiT survey though, this is only meant to capture a moment to give policy makers an idea of the depth of the problem.
“What we’re trying to do is capture that snapshot of experiences on a single night,” said Judi Winkup, Housing Planning and Policy Analyst for the County. “It is a voluntary survey, so we know we’re not going to catch everybody, and we don’t want people to feel uncomfortable or coerced. People had a choice, there was a pen and paper version, and this was the first time we tried an online survey.”
Of the 270 that took part, 161 volunteered to fill out the survey across Guelph and Wellington County, and another 85 individuals were sought out to complete a survey using administrative data. The other 24 people in the count were children. By demographics, the largest age group among the homeless is people between 40 and 64 who make up half the people Guelph-Wellington without a permanent home. The second largest group is people between 25 and 39 at 34 per cent.
Sixty-five per cent of homeless people in Guelph-Wellington are male, with 33 per cent female, and 23 per cent of the people that answered the survey identified as Indigenous. Just over 7 out of every 10 respondents are living on their own, while 14 per cent are experiencing homelessness with friends, and 7 per cent with children.
In terms of the type of homeless experience, 40 per cent of respondents were in emergency shelters on October 20, almost one-third reported that they had no shelter at all and 28 per cent said that they had temporary shelter, which includes “couch-surfing” and other similar temporary living arrangements.
“These are people who are staying with friends or family, but it’s not a permanent spot, they don’t have their own home,” Winkup said. “That category of ‘temporarily sheltered’ also includes individuals who would be in a treatment centre or if they were in hospital. They could also be incarcerated, but they don’t have a permanent place to call home.”
The survey also covered the challenges being faced by the region’s homeless people Substance use and mental health issues were reported by 75 per cent and 72 per cent of respondents respectively while 44 per cent claimed a learning or cognitive limitation, 34 per cent had a physical limitation, and 35 per cent had an illness or other chronic medical condition. Obviously, respondents were asked to check all areas that applied to them.
The top five factors for homelessness are a conflict with someone they lived with, mental health or substance use issues, the cost of housing, a conflict with the landlord, and unfit or unsafe housing. In terms of challenges finding housing, respondents reported high rents, no availability, low income, discrimination, and substance abuse as the top five.
Issues of cost make sense when you consider that almost four-out-of-five respondents are dependent on government benefits like the Ontario Disability Support Progam, which maxes out at $700 for a single person.
“The pandemic has really added additional layers of stress and strains on people’s lives,” Winkup added. “People are experiencing multiple challenges. I don’t think there was anyone who just said one challenge; it was at least two or more for everyone, and some people had five or six challenges that they identified.”
The real good news of the PiT survey was found in the youth numbers. Just 13 per cent of the participants in 2021 were classified as youth between the ages of 16 and 24 compared to 32 per cent in the 2018 report.
“The youth identified in the survey are largely known to us and they’re reflected in our co-ordinated access system and on our By-Name List,” said Kristen Cairney, Program Director for Wyndham House. “That’s really great news because that means we know who’s experiencing homelessness, and we know what the factors are for those individuals, and it also means that we’ve been able to respond to some of the trends we’re seeing in those populations to reduce that number overall.”
Making sure that youth don’t experience homelessness is important because the PiT survey reveals that chronic homelessness starts early. Forty-two per cent of respondents told the survey that they were under 18 years old when they were homeless for the first time. On top of that, just over one-third of the respondents said that they were homeless less than two years after leaving foster care or a youth home. “Get them early” seems key to making sure that young people avoid homelessness in the future.
“The number of youths dropping significantly overall is because of the introduction of diversion services, which is really about preventing young people from entering the system, and also the interaction of more supportive housing approaches and complex capable approaches for this population,” Cairney explained. “So if we can find housing solutions for those with the most complex needs, and also prevent young people from entering homelessness system in the first place, the numbers go down.”
“We’ve already seen a 43 per cent reduction in chronic youth homelessness, and a 24 per cent overall reduction in chronic homelessness, and that’s even in the midst of a pandemic where the system pressures have never been higher,” Richer added, noting the commitment from Guelph and Wellington to move away from the shelter model to building and funding more supportive housing that really does make an impact in ending homelessness.
“We’ve got Grace Gardens, Kindle Communities, Delhi Street and the Bellevue project,” Richer said. “Those projects will bring online close to 100 units in 2022, and 2023, and those 100 units will provide much needed supportive housing for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, and really move us closer to our goal.”
The goal, of course, is to end chronic homelessness in Guelph and Wellington by 2023.
To see the full Point in Time Count survey and report, visit the County of Wellington’s website here.