There are no easy answers when it comes to addressing issues of homelessness, but there’s little hope of finding long-term solutions without committed, ongoing funding from the provincial and federal governments.
That sentiment was repeatedly uttered during an emergency meeting of the County of Wellington’s Social Service Committee on Thursday afternoon, which was organized at the request of Guelph city council.
The county is responsible for administering social services in all of the county, including the City of Guelph.
“There is only so much we can do without provincial and federal dollars,” commented Coun. Diane Ballantyne of Centre Wellington, who doesn’t sit on the committee but attended the session. “We need the provincial government, the federal government to step up and listen.”
The only actions taken by the committee following nearly two hours of discussion were to request the county warden and staff be included on the still-being-formed Strategic Advisory Group on Downtown, which is to run under the Mayor’s Taskforce on Homelessness and Community Safety, as well calling for capital and operating funds to “flow” to municipalities, along with the “development of a critical supportive housing programme.”
Those committee-approved motions require ratification from county council, which doesn’t meet again until September, to become official.
“I think it’s very, very needed … so the left hand knows what the right hand is doing,” Warden Kelly Linton, mayor of Centre Wellington, said of having county representation on the advisory group.
He referred to the group as “a tactical place” to discuss issues facing the community.
“The big kick of this is we’re working together to get this solved,” said Coun. David Anderson of Minto, who chairs the committee.
He suggested the county and city working together on funding applications have “much more punch” than individual requests. “We are stronger working together and together we can solve almost anything.”
Thursday’s meeting was held in response to a motion from Guelph council’s committee of the whole, which requested the meeting during its July 4 session. City council formalized that request on Monday, but the meeting was already planned.
Ahead of making its request for an emergency social services committee meeting, city council members heard from a variety of speakers who raised concerns about the increased level of homelessness in Downtown Guelph, as well as concerns about both the perception and reality of safety, pleading for solutions to be found – accessible treatment and/or housing for those who need it, along with assistance for struggling businesses that find themselves sometimes acting as de facto social services providers.
“We have this situation where we are unfairly asking people to move along … without anywhere for people to go,” city councillor Rodrigo Goller told the social services committee, speaking as a registered delegate, who noted “downtown merchants are under a lot of stress.”
There were some takeaways for county staff from Thursday’s meeting.
They include Guelph mayor Cam Guthrie’s suggestion of looking into a locker system so unhoused individuals don’t have to carry all their worldly possessions with them as they move around, along with efforts to close the gap between shelter and drop-in services in the downtown core.
It was explained shelter services run from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. while the drop-in at Royal City Mission (RCM) opens at noon, leaving a four-hour gap.
“This is a major, major problem,” commented Guthrie, who wants to see the gap filled.
Eddie Alton, the county’s social services administrator, stated it may be possible to find funding for that to happen, either through the shelters or RCM.
Guthrie further called for county homelessness staff to be embedded in the shelter system to provide support and provide help navigating social service systems.
To that Alton responded by stating the county provides funds to local agencies for that purpose but acknowledged there’s no direct staffing provided at this time.
Strides toward a long-term solution have been made, stated Dominica McPherson, director of the Guelph Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, pointing to the ongoing construction efforts for three permanent supportive housing projects with 72 beds collectively.
“We are doing something about it and I know we can do more,” she said. “If any community can do it, I think it’s ours.”
Another county effort to create 28 temporary supportive housing units at a Delhi Street location are also on hold, pending the outcome of zoning approval appeals.
In a report to the committee, Alton noted there’s been a 35 per cent increase in shelter space created since the pandemic began.
Of the 131 known chronically homeless individuals, 91 per cent are in Guelph.