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Encampment residents say shelters not a ‘healthy’ option for all

Shelters don't work for people who have PTSD or anxiety-based issues, say encampment residents
More than a month after issuing an eviction notice to encampment residents, Ministry of Transportation officials say the province is giving them "additional time" to vacate.

It’s been several weeks since residents of a longstanding encampment below the Hanlon Expressway were ordered to clear out, given days to move their belongings and find somewhere else to live.

That threatened eviction hasn’t come to pass, with officials acknowledging it’s a “sensitive situation” that requires more time to resolve.

The issue, residents say, is they simply have nowhere else to go. Local shelters aren’t a healthy option for their situations and supportive housing programs take way too long.

“I’d never be able to do the shelter (again). A lot of us are out here because we can’t be in tight quarters like that with people,” said David Dobbs, who’s called the encampment below the Hanlon Expressway bridge over the Speed River home for about a year. “It doesnt’ work.

“The rules and regulations they want, it doesn’t work for a person who has, say PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) or anxiety-based problems.”

“It’s not healthy … it’s not a back-up plan for anybody,” added fellow resident Jamie Fox, who’s also lived in the encampment for more than a year. “(In the shelter system) you’re dealing with a lot of drugs and whatnot, stuff that I didn’t want to deal with.”

Paul Hancock, who has lived in the encampment for nearly five years with his dog Gemma, previously told GuelphToday he moved there to get away from the “riff raff” downtown.

The three of them are the encampments' regular residents, though others stay for short periods of time.

In mid-June, the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) handed out eviction notices giving residents five days to clear out from the provincially owned land. According to the notice, anything left behind was to be held at a ministry yard on Elmira Road for 30 days. If not claimed by then, it would be thrown out.

When that didn’t happen, residents were granted a one-week extension.

Since then, however, they say they’ve not seen or heard anything about the eviction plan or if anything is being done to help them find somewhere suitable to live.

“They haven’t even come back yet. They haven’t been through at all,” Dobbs said of the MTO, which was accompanied by Ontario Provincial Police officers when the initial notice was issued in June.

Contacted by GuelphToday, an MTO spokerson acknowledged the eviction plan remains in place and added, “we fully understand that this is a sensitive situation. We will continue to provide the individuals additional time as required while mitigating any safety concerns at the same time.”

The spokesperson repeatedly refused to say whether the MTO has set protocols or procedures in place to address encampments on its land.

“The ministry addresses encampments that cause safety concerns. Only after each person has been offered safe, indoor space, notice, and sufficient time to go through their belongings would people be asked to vacate,” they wrote.

Stepping Stone, a community agency dedicated to helping individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Guelph, was contacted by the MTO to provide assistance to encampment residents.

“My understanding is that the MTO is not actively moving forward on removing these individuals from this encampment at this time,” executive director Gail Hoekstra said via email. “Our outreach staff continues to support the individuals staying there with accessing shelter/housing options along with other needs (ie. ID) if needed. 

“My understanding is that these individuals are not interested in coming into shelter at this time.”

Dobbs lamented the long waiting list for housing support programs, especially for a single man with no children.

“You’re pushed to the very back,” he said of prioritization on the waiting list.

According to the County of Wellington, which handles housing issues on behalf of the City of Guelph, the average wait for rent-geared-to-income housing is five years, with some taking more than eight years, depending on location and bedroom requirements.

Asked what encampment residents have been doing to prepare for potential eviction, Dobbs said, “We haven’t really done too much. I’m just waiting to see what they say. Obviously they’re not pushing it too hard. I think we raised enough stink with them with the support that we have.”

“I don’t think the publicity that they got was too well (received) on their behalf,” he added of the MTO.

Dobbs and Fox are asking for leniency from the provincial government and others, as well as Guelph residents.

“We’re far enough away from everybody that it stays quiet, but lately we’ve had people coming in and causing problems for us,” said Dobbs. “Just the other day we had somebody come in and walk through our whole camp calling us thieves and all this shit because a bike went missing from his house.

“We help people with bikes, fix them up for people,” he noted. “Not all (homeless people) are bad people.”