Whether you see it or not, homelessness is a reality for some district residents.
And for the first time ever, area agencies are working together to collect data to get a clearer picture of how prevalent the phenomenon is and help find better ways to aid those in need.
The effort is being spearheaded by Jamie Petrin, community homeless liaison for the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board.
“The province . . . committed to ending homelessness by 2025, so they have putting a lot of resources into prevention and into emergency solutions and supports,” Petrin told the Times.
“I was hired under this goal–to support ending homelessness–and one of the bigger things I have been working on is the study of homelessness; the enumeration of homelessness,” she noted.
“Right now, there’s no common count or way to measure homelessness across the province,” Petrin added.
“A few places have tried to do co-ordinated counts but there’s really not a lot of data to compare upon.”
The count, which will take place every two years, is being mandated by the province so Ontario municipalities will be participating in it next spring.
Here, it’s hoped the survey will be conducted over two weeks in April, followed by another in the spring of 2020 and so on.
The survey method to be used in Rainy River District is called a “period prevalence count,” a method designed for northern and rural communities that focuses on finding all forms of homelessness, Petrin explained.
In other words, this would include not just those accessing emergency shelters, but individuals who may be “couch surfing” because they have no place to stay, she noted, adding the latter often are referred to as the “hidden homeless.”
DSSAB is partnering with more than 30 service agencies throughout the district to administer surveys to people accessing services which provide help to the impoverished or homeless.
A steering committee–comprised of representatives from DSSAB, the United Native Friendship Centre, Rainy River District Victim Services Program, Salvation Army, the Rainy River District Women’s Shelter of Hope, Canadian Mental Health Association-Fort Frances, Kenora and Rainy River District Child and Family Services, Northwestern Health Unit, Métis Nation of Ontario, Atikokan Economic Development, Northwest Community Legal Clinic, and Atikokan Community Counselling–met for the first time last Wednesday.
More are expected to take part in future, including the OPP, Community Living Fort Frances and District, and the Ontario Addictions Treatment Centre.
“A lot of people don’t realize the scope of homelessness in the district right now,” Petrin said.
“The service agencies that we’re working with have really come together because we all serve the public and we all see a lot of the same issues coming forward.”
While they are starting from a base questionnaire, the committee will fine-tune the survey to how they feel will work best for Rainy River District, and the partner agencies involved, before it is conducted in the spring.
“There’s a lot of things to consider, such as people’s privacy,” Petrin noted.
“The surveys will be totally anonymous and no services that a person is accessing will be impacted by their answers.”
As well, different partners have different mandates on which they’re focused–ranging from human trafficking to public health–so the survey will include questions that will be of the greatest benefit to those district partners.
The committee has put the offer out to all of the agencies it is working with for input on how the count will be planned.
Certain guidelines dictated by the province must be followed, but the committee is able to pick a timeline, dates, whether to have a “magnet event” to draw out the greatest number of people to take the survey, etc.
Petrin said because Rainy River District is so large, the main focus will be on Atikokan and Fort Frances, and use what agencies they can in Emo and Rainy River.
The objective of the survey is to find out more about homelessness in Rainy River District and to be able to respond to it–data which will be helpful to agencies involved.
“That’s why we’re getting such a positive response from the all of the service agencies we’re working with,” Petrin said.
“Even though the province is mandating it, the information is going to be so useful.
“Right now, it’s really hard to do community planning and look at policies that could end homelessness if we don’t really know where all of the issues are,” she reasoned.
The questionnaire also will help shed light on why people are homeless–a question Petrin said she gets asked a lot.
“Nobody wants to be homeless,” she remarked. “A lot of people think, ‘Why can’t they just change their situation?’
“But with all of these agencies working together while planning this enumeration, we are trying to take a systems-based approach, where we are trying to catch people that are falling through the cracks,” Petrin explained.
“Somebody might go the health unit and then they might come to us [DSSAB] and then they might go to Victim Services or the Friendship Centre.
“What we’re trying to do is come out of our silos and work together to get people the help that they need,” she stressed.
“And the co-operation has been fantastic.”
Petrin also noted the district partners are not just looking at individuals who live on the street or in a tent–the “traditional” view of homelessness–but people who might be living at other peoples’ home (“couch surfing”) or out of a motel or hotel, as well as those who are in and out of hospital or jail simply because they have nowhere else to stay.
They’re also looking at people who are not homeless but in imminent risk of being so.
“What we look at there is if a household is living paycheque to paycheque and a single unanticipated expense would create homelessness,” said Petrin.
In addition to spearheading the creation and execution of the future survey, DSSAB has been working on raising awareness of the different forms that homelessness takes.
As such, it has developed a housing allowance for people who are at risk of homelessness.
Petrin said DSSAB, the UNFC, RRDVSP, the Salvation Army, and the local women’s shelter work very closely to try and pinpoint common reasons people come to them for help.
“We are noticing a lot of arrears coming up at certain times of the year,” she remarked. “We know that hydro bills can be very high.
“We introduced the housing allowance to try and sort of bridge the gap for people who might be on a fixed income or a low income.”
Another change DSSAB just has finalized is a new category on the housing wait list: high-priority.
“So it’s sort of in line with the ‘housing first’ philosophy,” Petrin noted.
“In years past, to address homelessness, housing providers have required that these individuals need to be fit and ready before they should get housing.”
This could mean they have to become sober, address a mental health issue, or otherwise modify their behaviour before being eligible for affordable housing.
“Housing first is a philosophy that’s had a lot of success across North America, where the idea is you give somebody a home to live in, and from there you can work with them to address whatever underlying issues would have caused the homelessness,” Petrin said.
“It’s impractical and unfair to try and force someone, who’s at this really low point in their life, to clean up while they’re living on a street or in an unsafe environment,” she conceded.
Petrin added there is a housing shortage, but DSSAB is trying to get people at-risk of homelessness into housing as soon as possible.
Those fleeing from an abusive situation always are given highest priority.
“There’s a lot of work to do but I honestly can’t express enough how valuable it’s been to have such a close, productive relationship with the other agencies because everyone is so willing and ready to start taking action on the issue,” Petrin stressed.
“And everyone is really trying to think of innovative solutions to it, too.”