Homelessness and addictions under study by policy group

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

The Northern Policy Institute (NPI) is collecting ideas from regional municipalities to help combat northwestern Ontario’s homelessness crisis.

As part of second-day proceedings at last week’s Northern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) gathering at the Fort Frances Curling Centre, NPI policy analyst Holly Parsons presented a preliminary report on homelessness, addictions, and mental health in the north. Parsons is originally from Calgary, and graduated with a B.A. in politics and policy studies and international relations from Deacon University in Melbourne, Australia. Following work in Australia and Indonesia, Parsons now works with NPI in Sudbury.

Parsons presented her paper to the assembled NOMA delegates, noting the results of the paper are specifically in relation to municipal budget planing, allowing for municipalities to see where funds can go to best address homelessness and related issues in their towns.

“In recent years, municipal governments, as the ones on the ground, have faced extraordinary pressures from their tax bases to solve homelessness, addiction, and mental health issues,” Parsons said.

“As such, NOMA, FONOM (Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities) and NOSDA (Northern Ontario Service Deliverers Association) wanted to know, can municipal budgets support an increase in spending on services related to homelessness, addictions and mental health?”

Parsons said that in order to determine the answers to this question, a baseline needed to be established. That baseline was intended to answer the questions of how big the issues are in each region, and whether the municipal budgets within those regions could appropriately address them, collecting data from a variety of reliable sources.”

“While homelessness, addiction and mental health data shows there is indeed a crisis occurring in northern Ontario, it was found that there is very little additional cash available to northern municipalities to appropriately spend on homelessness, addictions and mental health issues,” Parsons said.

Parsons had prepared an accompanying bar graph showing the percentage of non-financial assets accounted for within the municipal budget surplus in a number of regional municipalities, including Kenora, Fort Frances, Thunder Bay and Kapuskasing. The graph showed that in any municipality where the percentage of non-financial or physical assets such as hospitals, schools, and community housing is equal to 100, the municipality is experiencing a cash deficit “as 100 per cent of their surplus represents their physical assets rather than the available cash funds.” Half of the municipalities from which Parsons collected data were experiencing this deficit, with only Kenora, Fort Frances, Sault Ste. Marie, St. Charles, and North Bay coming in under the 100 per cent mark.

An additional graph showed estimated homeless populations in several regional municipalities as per a 2021 homelessness renumeration report from District Social Services Administration Boards (DSSAB) and municipalities. Where the Rainy River District showed 1.8 people per 1,000 experiencing homelessness, districts such as Sault Ste. Marie (3.0), Kenora (3.1), Nipissing (3.5) and Cochrane (3.9) showed numbers of homelessness higher even than metropolitan centres like Toronto (2.5) and the City of London, Ontario (2.8).

Relating to the numbers of people in northern communities experiencing homelessness, Parson’s next slide also demonstrated the severity of the addictions problems faced by those same communities. Taking data from public health units in northern areas, the results showed dramatic leaps in the number of annual opioid-related emergency department visits from 2016 to 2020, and often a significant increase simply from 2019 to 2020.

“In 2020, at the highest, Public Health Sudbury and District reported 259 opioid-related ED visits,” Parsons said.

“At the lowest, the Temiskaming Health Unit reported 146 visits. Equally notable, opioid related deaths increased significantly in every northern public health unit between 2015 and 2020. For example, opioid-related deaths increased by 200 per cent in Algoma Public Health Unit, and 168 per cent in North Bay-Parry Sound District Health Unit in one single year.”

According to Parsons, the high rate of homelessness and addictions is a strong indicator of significant mental health issues in the region, with all three factors being related, though not necessarily indicative of each other. Parsons said the number of people in the north of the province who rate their mental health as “very good” or “excellent” is lower than the provincial average in every health unit district except one — North Bay-Parry Sound.

There are certain strategies that municipalities can adopt to begin combatting these issues, with Parson’s paper recommending eight different strategies. Parsons noted that things like investing in community housing capital repairs, establishing a Northern Centre of Excellence for Addiction and Mental Health to address the unique challenges of implementing supportive programs for northern communities, and establishing more culturally-sensitive community housing are all steps that can be taken, though it will also take work and input from all levels of government and public organizations.

“The key item to remember is that the federal, provincial, and municipal governments, in conjunction with local grassroots organizations all have a role to play in addressing the crisis,” she said.

Noting that the report is due to be finalized and released at the end of this summer, Parsons took the opportunity of having the assembled representatives of municipalities and other organizations to turn the second half of her presentation into a roundtable discussion of three different questions on to how to tackle these issues across the north of the province. The first question posed to NOMA participants was “What opportunities could be leveraged to solve the homelessness, addiction and mental health crisis in Northern Ontario?” The second question was “What barriers/gaps exist that are exacerbating the homelessness, addiction and mental health crisis in Northern Ontario?” Finally, delegates were asked to consider “in practice, what community initiatives were successful in reducing the homelessness, addiction and mental health crisis in Northern Ontario?”

Parsons noted the information gathered during the roundtable discussions would be collected following the presentation and reviewed at a later date.