Local homelessness initiatives given spotlight at RRDSSAB AGM

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

Attendees and members of the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board (RRDSSAB) got the latest information on homelessness in the area at their Annual General Meeting on May 19.

Brenda Witherspoon-Bedard, the community engagement coordinator for homelessness, delivered the presentation that focused on some of the numbers seen here for those experiencing homeless, as well as some of the initiatives currently underway to help address the issue and keep service partners better informed.

Beginning with the Out of the Cold Warming Centre, Witherspoon-Bedard shared data taken from January to December 2021, and it showed that the centre saw plenty of use over that calendar year.

“To give you an idea, we’ve had 689 total visits between January and December,” she said.

“40 individuals accessed out centre, and we were open 181 days this year. On average we had people that visited four times during the week. Our average guest visited with us 17 times, and 65 percent of the individuals that came during this period of time, also came last year.”

Additionally, Witherspoon-Bedard shared figures that showed 73 percent of those accessing the warming centre identified as male, while 80 percent of all visitors identified as Indigenous. The most common age groups represented by visitors to the centre were between 30-39 and 40-59. Witherspoon-Bedard also had some stats from the end of this year’s season which did not make the slides of her presentation.

“We just closed on Sunday [May 15], and so I went through quickly to see what our stats were,” she explained.

“We had individuals use our centre 732 times from November to May. That’s a pretty good number of people that were housed for that whole time.”

RRDSSAB also undertook a homelessness enumeration initiative in early October 2021 in order to better gauge the homeless situation in the area. However, there were some issues about the way the enumeration was administered that have likely led to an underrepresentation of the actual figures of homelessness.

“Our enumeration took place on October 5, 2021,” Witherspoon-Bedard explained.

“Our enumeration was able to identify 37 individuals who were homeless. That is a very significant difference to what happened in 2018. We were able to identify 111 individuals. Many factors play into that.”

Included in the RRDSSAB 2021 Annual Report, the organization notes the method of enumeration that year is what is known as a Point in Time (PiT) enumeration, which is conducted on one specific date, compared to previous enumeration methods which occur over a longer period of time, leading to more accurate data. Added to the fact that this most recent enumeration was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the RRDSSAB notes in its report that the numbers provided are likely well below actual figures.

“The PiT enumeration is known to be an under count of the homeless population in the community,” the report reads.

“The count is not meant to reflect the experiences of homelessness through a year, or the complete scope of homelessness within our district. The count was held during the COVID-19 pandemic. As much as possible, the 2021 PiT count intended to be conducted similarly to the 2018 count for comparability. However, given public health restrictions, the count was held with limited data collection methods. As a result, the findings cannot be readily compared to those of the Rainy River District Enumeration 2018, Putting the Spotlight on Homelessness.”

Even with skewed data, RRDSSAB was able to see through the enumeration that individuals within the Rainy River District are struggling to find adequate housing options, noting that physical and mental health challenges, as well as substance use, unfit housing and low incomes are “some of the challenges people experiencing homelessness face when trying to access and maintain stable housing.”

Witherspoon-Bedard noted that the results of the enumeration had some similarities with what staff have seen at the warming centre. The enumeration found that 78 percent of those surveyed during the process identified as Indigenous, which lined up very closely to the 80 percent figure noted at the centre. Also significant in the enumeration data is just where those experiencing homelessness are sleeping.

“40 percent of our respondents reported staying at someone else’s house,” Witherspoon-Bedard said.

“That is a significant number over all the other choices people could use. If you’re not familiar, that’s called ‘hidden homelessness’ and it’s really, really important, especially in our district. Sixty-two percent of our respondents reported both mental health concerns and substance use. I’ve heard since I’ve been in this position that so many people move to our area because we have great services for homeless people. That’s what I hear. But if we look at it truthfully, 68 percent of our people said they’ve lived in our district for at least a year, probably mostly longer, but the question was stated ‘in the last year, have you moved here?’ and 68 percent of people have not.”

One of the programs run by the RRDSSAB, in conjunction with community partners, is the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative (CHPI, pronounced “chippy”) that aims to support those experiencing homelessness or approaching homelessness in four different categories: emergency shelter solutions like emergency shelter and hotel vouchers, housing with related supports for start-up which covers client supportlike rent and utility deposits, homelessness prevention support with things like rent and utility arrears or disconnect fees, and then other supports like transportation for treatment. Through the CHPI program, taking data for the last four years, Witherspoon-Bedard noted that the expenditures related to the different assistance have varied wildly over the years as different needs have risen to the forefront. Where the Motel Diversion, which included grocery gift cards, and the Emergency Shelter, which included motel vouchers, funds saw limited use in 2018, they were the most accessed funds in 2021, which Witherspoon-Bedard said owed to the nature of the pandemic.

“We serviced 21 households in helping them retain their housing,” she said.

“And 74 households stayed in emergency shelter. If you look at the other years, you can see the money was spent differently.”

One other initiative being undertaken by RRDSSAB, which Witherspoon-Bedard said she was excited to share with the attendees, is the By-Name Prioritized List (BNL). Witherspoon-Bedard explained the list is similar to a waitlist of sorts, but is instead intended to be a live, up-to-date list of individuals in the community experiencing homelessness.

“This allows us as a community to know every person that’s homeless by name,” she said.

“We know them by name. Using this by-name list we’re going to be able to benefit, we’ve got specific data that’s going to come in. We’re going to be able to know on a system level, ‘are we doing a good job with homeless,’ and specifically by person. I’m going to know specifically on an individual level and data system level if someone is homed this month.”

The RRDSSABis working with CMHA, Riverside Health Care, the United Native Friendship Centre and Victim Services on the list, which will allow all front line workers interacting with those experiencing homelessness to gather the same data for collection, which helps when interacting with another system in place, the Coordinated Entry System (CES). According to Witherspoon-Bedard, the CES helps to ensure there are no wrong doors to take for those looking for help, someone who needs assistance will get the help they need regardless of which service they turn to.

“We’re all going to do the same intake, we’re all going to ask the same information, we’re going to all do the same priority, and we come together,” she explained.

“A lot of this was done previously, but now we’ve set up formal ways of doing it. It’s going to save everyone time. My goal really is there’s going to be no wrong door. Somebody can go to any of those places and those people are going to know how to help them.”

The CES also ensures that individuals can be quickly and accurately placed where they need to be without unnecessary confusion. Witherspoon-Bedard likened it to hospital triage, where an individual gets assessed and assistance based on their needs and assigned to an appropriate service in an orderly manner, rather than everyone trying to get help at the same place, where they may or may not get the particular assistance they need.

According to Witherspoon-Bedard, 79 percent of respondents to the 2021 Homelessness Enumeration consented to have their names placed on the By-Name List.