Homelessness a ‘humanitarian crisis’

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Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff is seen here with Ontario’s Big City Mayors chair Marianne Meed Ward on June 14 at a retreat held east of Erie Beach for 29 mayors of the province’s largest cities.

Mayors urge support over homelessness

By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ontario’s Big City Mayors (OBCM) are calling on government step up to help solve the province’s growing homelessness problem.

Dubbing it a “humanitarian crisis,” OBCM chair Marianne Meed Ward said the Ontario government needs to take action as the problem grows bigger day by day.

“This is something we’ve been advocating to the government for several years and the time is now to act,” the Burlington mayor said. “This is a humanitarian crisis that is affecting every single municipality, large and small. People are dying on our streets and it doesn’t need to happen.”

Meed Ward’s comments came as the OBCM gathered in Chatham-Kent on June 14. The issues of Ontario’s rising rates of homelessness, mental health and addiction topped the agenda with mayors and municipal CAOs sharing ideas and brainstorming to find solutions.

“We are standing ready as partners,” Meed Ward said, with municipalities ready to do their part to tackle the challenge.

“We can’t do this alone.” she said.  “We need the government to help us.”

Co-ordinating an Ontario-wide response is key, Meed Ward said, noting municipalities don’t have the funding – or capacity – to deal with the issue. She said and the province needs to appoint a “point person” and an action table needs to be created.

Meed Ward was blunt about lack of response from government.

“The answers are there, now we need action,” she said. “There’s an election coming and this will be an issue. It’s in every town and city across Ontario, and indeed across the country. Residents are saying to us, you need to act. We are accountable and we have the tools, but we don’t have the funding.”

Meed Ward pointed out the issue crosses several provincial ministries, noting it is both a public safety and public health issue. She went on to say that homelessness is “killing” the downtown areas of towns and cities and something must be done.

“We need to ask governments to work with us to solve this crisis,” Meed Ward said. A formal request from the OBCM to government will be forthcoming after the conference, she added.

London Mayor Josh Morgan, OBCM vice-chair, said there are solutions that work, including the creation of “highly effective” supportive housing projects.

Morgan highlighted a partnership between the City of London, London Cares and the London Health Sciences Centre hospital system, noting it greatly reduced pressure on the system. A total of 24 spaces have been built to date, he said, and 25 more are in the pipeline.

Morgan said the project has led to significant reductions in emergency room visits via land ambulance, as well as interactions with police.

He cited two examples where the program had been effective. One man had been to the hospital 221 times in one year, but only three times in the six months after being housed.

Another man had 800 contacts with police in a year, Morgan said, but none the following year after being lodged in supportive housing.

“In fact, the police reached out to see if the person was still alive,” Morgan added.

But he also emphasized that upper levels of government need to get behind the solutions.

“These (supportive housing builds) can be transformative,” Morgan said, “but what we have is a scale problem. We are trying solutions across different municipalities that are working. We need to find the right balance of ideas, and fast forward, we need government to help scale those.

Morgan said all of the ideas need to be co-ordinated in a “much more effective” way.

Meed Ward said the group will also be conveying their concerns about the province’s Building Faster Fund, particularly what she calls the “wildly inaccurate” data used by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation to come up with numbers.

“Real money is being tied to that data and it needs to be correct,” she said.

Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff said the mayors coming together as a group is “essential,” with best practices being shared.

“We come together as one voice to the province and to learn from each other,” Canniff said.

OBCM is made up of 29 single and lower-tier cities with populations of 100,000 or more.

For many of the mayors, it was their first visit to C-K. “Awesome, unique and incredible” were some of the adjectives used by the mayors to describe their first impressions of Chatham-Kent.

The event was held at an as yet unnamed retreat centre being developed by C-K businessman Rob Myers on the Lake Erie shore west of Erie Beach.

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