No space in northern municipal budgets to address homelessness, addiction, mental health: Report

By Mia Jensen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Sudbury Star

Northern Ontario municipalities are not adequately addressing homelessness, addiction, and mental health—and don’t have the extra cash to do so. 

A new report from the Northern Policy Institute aimed to examine the question of whether Northern Ontario municipalities had the capacity to improve their strategies for addressing these issues within their current budgets. 

According to NPI policy analyst Holly Parsons, who authored the paper, the simple answer to that question is: no. 

“Overall, very little additional cash is available for municipalities to spend appropriately on additional services and programs around mental health, addiction and homelessness,” she said. 

According to Parsons, the crises of homelessness, addiction, and mental health have only been worsening in Northern Ontario in the last few years. 

The report found that in 2021, Sault Ste. Marie, and the districts of Kenora, Nipissing and Cochrane all had higher rates of homelessness per 1,000 residents than some of Ontario’s largest cities. In Thunder Bay, the number was more than double that of Ottawa, Hamilton, and Waterloo. 

While Sudbury had a much lower rate of homelessness, over 66 per cent of un-housed individuals were struggling with their mental health, and over 80 per cent were dealing with opioid addiction. 

In 2021, Sudbury also saw the highest rate of opioid-related emergency department visits of any public health unit in the region, with 313 visits per 100,000 people. 

That number was the culmination of a growing crisis in the city. Between 2017 and 2021, opioid-related ED visits jumped by 628 per cent in Sudbury. 

“Northerners have really noticed an increase in the number of people struggling with homelessness, addiction and mental health in their communities,” Parsons said. “On the ground, municipal governments have been facing increasing pressure from their tax bases and from their community members to address these issues.”

While the report found that some northern municipalities have contributed additional funds to address these issues, many lack the fiscal capacity to do more. In most areas, budgets are so tight that there is little to no funding available to spend on improving services and programs. 

To find a solution, municipalities need to be willing to get creative, Parsons said. 

“The problem in northern Ontario is, of course, service delivery looks very different up here,” she said. “One size fits all policies generally don’t work (here), largely due to large geographic size and low population density.”

Some key barriers have included a shortage of health care workers, and a lack of affordable housing. Parsons said these are among the issues that municipalities need to be focusing on if they want the situation to improve. 

“Northern Ontario has been experiencing a population decline and so the retention of the current population and attraction is very important,” she said. “In order to attract and retain the population, we need to have healthy and safe and prosperous communities that people want to stay in and that people want to come to.”

The report offers eight potential strategies that are viable for northern municipalities within their current constraints. 

Parsons suggests that Sudbury could benefit from implementing a “Housing First” strategy, which would prioritize placing vulnerable individuals in housing without preconditions, then supporting them care and resources. She said they’d also like to see an amendment to the provincial Health Protection and Promotion Act to define a Northern Service Hub to allow additional funding into northern communities. 

Other strategies include establishing a taskforce to collect data on systemic retention issues in health care, relieving the load on paramedics by contracting third party operators of inter-facility patient transfers, and mandating mobile crisis intervention teams throughout the region. 

“We’re only as strong as our weakest link,” Parsons said. “We need to address these issues to foster healthier, safer and more prosperous communities in northern Ontario.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.