Trying to solve the ‘life and death’ issue of homelessness

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Blake Ellis/Local Journalism Initiative

“Homelessness is an issue of life and death. It is a life sentence,” says the director of Built For Zero Canada and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.  

Marie Morrison is urging Lambton County officials to use a model called Housing First at a summit focusing on homelessness, housing and addiction Tuesday.  It centres on quickly moving people experiencing homelessness into safe, affordable and permanent housing and then providing them additional supports and services including  mental health, education, employment, substance abuse treatment, health care and community connections. 

Morrison says it costs $55,000 a year to deal with a homeless person on the street, but if you were to house people instead, it would be a lot less. “It costs more to ignore homelessness,” she said. 

Morrison told county officials at gathered at Lambton College homelessness is not a person problem, but is a policy and system problem, caused by poverty, the lack of secure employment, the justice system, colonization and lack of funding of affordable housing.

Lambton County organized the summit as number of people living on the streets in communities across Lambton grows. Right now, county officials say, there are 244 people without homes, up to 50 sleep outside at night.

Lambton County’s Supervisor of Homelessness Prevention Ian Hanney says there has been some success, as 450 people have been able to be placed into permanent housing since the beginning of the pandemic. This can be credited to a coordinated approach with other community agencies. 

Hanney said the rate of homelessness could not be explained by substance abuse alone. The longer someone is homeless, as they can become a victim of crime and sexual exploitation. 

Acting CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association of Lambton Kent, Rhonny Doxtator, sees the need for stable housing daily. Doxtator said while maintaining income and housing are two important factors to maintain someone’s mental health, finding a place to live is more difficult than ever. The Canadian Mental Health Association has 250 clients across the county living in apartments. 

Hanney agrees the rental market has tightened in the county since 2014. Lambton now has a 2.4 percent vacancy rate. A one-bedroom apartment is now being rented for $1,200 a month.

But the homeless also face added obstacles with landlords who are being more selective in choosing their tenants, often asked for credit checks and criminal record checks. This is putting the most vulnerable at risk, Hanney said.

And the county also faces obstacles, with long waiting list for geared to income housing. Officials plan to have 75 new affordable unites ready by 2024, but it’s just a fraction of what is needed. The county needs to spend $45 million in the next ten years to build enough housing units to clear the backlog.  

While the hurdles are high, the risk to leaving people on the street are greater says the head of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

Those experiencing homelessness are 20 times more likely to be hospitalized and five times more likely to die, Morrison says.

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