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Consultant: Good intentions are not enough to help people experiencing homelessness

Homelessness consultant Iain De Jong spoke at this week’s city council meeting, during which he advocated for a co-ordinated approach to tackling homelessness
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Iain De Jong is a world-renowned homelessness consultant contracted by the city in 2021 to offer advice on the city's homelessness issues.

The city needs a co-ordinated approach to tackling homelessness, consultant Iain De Jong told Greater Sudbury city council earlier this week, calling to question some existing efforts. 

De Jong, a world-renowned homelessness consultant recently hired by the city, explained that homelessness is a complex matter that requires trained people to resolve.

Sheltered and chronic homelessness, he said, requires “a very specific, diligently applied skillset so that the services we’re offering people is in accordance with the main currents of thought and practices less likely to be retraumatizing and is more likely to achieve a solution to their homelessness.”

Despite this, he clarified that people shouldn’t be afraid to approach people experiencing homelessness.

“Treat people experiencing homelessness as human beings,” he said. “It’s OK to speak to people experiencing homelessness, It’s OK to ask people how their day is, it’s OK to ask people or make comments about weather or sports or those sorts of things; to acknowledge or make visible people who are often seen as invisible.”

There are plenty of avenues available for people interested in helping, he said, pointing to online fundraisers toward people’s first and last month’s rent as an example.

For those interested in doing something more tangible, welcome home baskets that include a collection of resources would also be a good idea. 

That way, he said, “They don’t have to be feeling anxiety about a shower curtain or towels or cooking supplies, that those things are not only provided for them but they’re provided with care and provided from a place of compassion and wanting to assist people.”

Asked to directly address and offer advice to those who want to help people experiencing homelessness, De Jong was clear.

“I appreciate your interest and compassion, and you may have a lot of gifts, resources, services, ideas to offer. It would probably be best if you do some research on non-profit organizations that assist people experiencing homelessness throughout Greater Sudbury, find a non-profit that’s aligned to your personal values and beliefs and then engage with that non-profit and see if the sort of things that you want to do to be of assistance, whether that’s knitting or making soup, etc, can be of benefit to that non-profit and the work that they are doing.”

In order to bring all these groups together in a targeted approach, De Jong urged the City of Greater Sudbury to develop a co-ordinated response table made up of five core members, including a local response leader, street outreach response leader, Indigenous service provider leader, operations response leader and a public safety response leader. 

This is an idea Mayor Brian Bigger appeared receptive to during this week’s meeting. 

“There’s a ton of really great energy in our community,” Bigger said. “What we’ve seen over the next year and a half, though, is many people tripping over each other duplicating their offers of services or food or clothing or what have you.”

The strategic approach De Jong described “does really speak to being strategic, getting the best outcomes from all the energy that’s in the community.”

Greater Sudbury city council’s discussion regarding De Jong’s presentation was cut short during this week’s meeting when it hit the three-hour mark, which council narrowly voted against pushing beyond. As such, the discussion is slated to continue during the Oct. 26 city council meeting.

De Jong’s work has come at a cost of $21,000, which according to a city report includes $9,000 toward the development and presentation of the encampment plan presented earlier this week and $12,000 toward continuing work for plan implementation. 

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for