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Even as cold as it is, some downtown homeless people will still choose sleeping rough

City has been able to provide housing to 41 people, a quarter of them have chosen to return to the streets 
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Fire broke out in a homeless shelter encampment in downtown Sudbury on Jan. 13. Despite the frigid cold, several people are still living in tents in the area of Memorial Park, using candles and tea lights to stay warm despite the fire hazard.

As the outreach workers and staff at the City of Greater Sudbury execute the encampment response guide, the troubles for those living in the park just keep getting bigger, with a reported three fires and now a loss of power to the area challenging those already dealing with extreme cold weather. 

But even with housing becoming available, some are not prepared to handle it. 

The city’s director of children and social services, Tyler Campbell, reports that the city has housed 41 people since July as well as providing temporary housing to 11 individuals with flex funding through the Canadian Homelessness Prevention Initiative (CHPI)

That said, Evie Ali of the Go-Give Project told Sudbury.com said there is already one of those people who has decided to give up the housing and move back to a life of homelessness. 

But even while it is exceedingly difficult to survive outdoors with the winter in full effect, Ali told Sudbury.com that there is at least one person who has given notice to the landlord of their new apartment, as having housing removed him entirely from his social structure. 

Ali said the man told her the isolation had worsened his suicidal thoughts and he wanted to go back to the warming centre. He was turned away, a move Ali understands because the facility at 199 Larch was already at capacity, or needed room for those who had no other option, especially with COVID-19 limitations in place. 

“He's actually given up his apartment just to keep the social structure because he's weighed the benefits to mental health, and housing is not his top priority,” said Ali. “He's been there for about three months, he's tried it out; he's like, ‘I can't do this, I'm gonna kill myself, let me out of here’. So while it seems that he's going right back to homelessness as a choice, it's because of lack of supports.”

She said they still see many of their clients downtown, even though they are housed. 

“They have one thing pulling them back there, they're still out at night, seeking substances, using substances,” she said. “Then once those substances are in your system, good luck trying to get your way back home, especially if you are newly housed; chances are you're not even going to remember that you were housed at that point.

“So people are getting housed, yes, but the supports are still not in place. So we are seeing them slowly trickle back out.” 

Not only that, but new evictions and new homeless people; perhaps more so now that pandemic rent freezes have been lifted in Ontario

“We are still seeing new people come out daily, '' said Ali. “New evictions are constantly taking place, so despite people getting housing, the numbers are staying consistent.” 

Ali adds that while not everyone on the street at night is homeless, “the lack of support is causing them to trickle right back onto the streets and the fact of the matter is, they are at risk on the streets during the night.”

Ali said her list of clients sits at 203, including those who have housing and are assisted by the Go-Give Project, but there are 174 homeless individuals. While most of those individuals visit the warming centre during the day and night — as confirmed by Karissa Cantin of SACY, the organization that runs the centre —  there are some who still resist services. 

“But we still have eight people hunkering it down out there. They're not moving out, they're not leaving their tents, they're not going anywhere,” said Ali. “We're constantly checking on them, because it's so cold. You don't have any heat sources right now; they're not using propane, there's nothing like that going on this year.” 

Ali said most of the heat is being generated by tea lights. 

“They're easy to obtain, they're easy to maintain,” she said. “Lots of people are using candles, but we all know how easy it is to, you know, knock over a candle or catch it on a sweater, things like that.” 

Ali said there have been three fires in the encampments this year, including the most recent one just off Larch street. No one was injured, but there was damage to possessions, and a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Gail Spencer, the city’s co-ordinator of shelters and homelessness, told Sudbury.com in an earlier interview that community partners have worked to educate those living in encampments about fire safety. 

Ali said all are adhering to those rules, “as much as they are cognitively able.” 

The further troubles include electricity to the park that will not be not be turned on until spring. After Greater Sudbury Utilities received a report Dec. 28 from Greater Sudbury Police about two power boxes that had the locks broken, the power was shut off until the Electrical Safety Authority could investigate. Campbell said the safety authority has now examined the boxes and as the work needed requires excavation, it cannot be done in the winter and therefore the power must stay off until the thaw. 

Ali said the electricity was being used by her clients to run numerous extension cords, connecting them to things like space heaters, battery packs and small generators. 

But while the frigid temperatures continue, Campbell said there has been room at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Off the Street shelter since Dec. 21, and about to be more when the Elizabeth Fry Society-run women’s shelter opens near the end of January. Still, there are those who do not wish to go. 

Ali disagrees that there are enough spaces, stating that the numbers provided by the city are based “spaces that are available on paper,” and not in reality and added there are also those who avoid the shelter for safety reasons, as violence is a regular part of life and an abuser could frequent the shelter. 

Or, quite simply, they have been banned from services.   

“You're expected to have your wits about you, be cognitive, be able to follow rules, maintain yourself when you're entering these facilities,” said Ali. “Not everybody has that luxury, not everybody is physically capable of doing that. 

She said those with deeper mental health and addictions issues are struggling deeply. “Those who tend to be more irritable, they're easily triggered, they will become aggressive, they will make threats, those types of symptoms, we don't have resources for these guys,” she said. Being turned away from resources, even those considered low barrier, “leaves them outside because they don't have anywhere else.” She said that this population has been consistently in place since the crisis began in earnest. “They’re on the streets and like they're not going anywhere. So it's unfortunate, but it's just another one of those gaps that we have in the sort of resource structure.”

Campbell said the city does continue to work with some individuals who are not interested in services, very often for reasons based in trust. 

“We are continuing to engage with them through a variety of service providers, different times of day, and different people, just to continue to build that trust and to look at options for individuals,” said Campbell. 

Also a part of the encampment response guide are the signs beginning to appear on a few structures in the encampment. 

Paper signs are being attached to structures in encampments that are deemed abandoned. “We're following best practice based on the encampment guide, whereby we put on a notice that gives 24 hours for the individual to contact outreach, for example.” 

Ali received a photo of a notice the morning of Jan. 14, taken the evening before. It reads: “This structure and its contents are considered abandoned and no longer in daily use. As a result, they will be moved on or after January 14.”

Once removed, the structure and its contents will be discarded, they will not be stored “for any length of time.” The sign states the removal will be done by bylaw officers, unless the person is “using this structure daily,” and in which case, it advises them to call the city phone number given, or asks for assistance from an outreach worker in the park. 

Campbell confirmed that the notice is city-issued, but also noted that if someone said they are using the structure, it won’t be taken down. 

“We won't take it down, if that's the case,” said Campbell. “To date, though. We haven't had any issues with that, so we've been removing the ones that are deemed uninhabited and are not used for storage.”

Campbell adds that new housing is being prepared as well, with the renovation of 10 two-bedroom social housing units into 20 one-bedroom units now underway, at a cost of approximately $80,000. This is a continuation of an existing effort that began in October and saw 20 units undergo this same conversion, most of which are already online.

But that is a solution for another time, said Ali; one that is needed, but too late. 

“But by the time we have any solutions, we're going to be dealing with a whole new demographic, and these people won't be here anymore; everything we’re working towards is not for these people, it's for the people that are going to come after these people,” she said.  “And those people are just as important, but that is the reality of our situation. This is a continuous cycle.”

She agrees with the city’s plans to build transitional housing with trained professionals, including psychiatric teams and addictions supports, but it won’t happen fast enough for those suffering now, she said. 

“The people we have living in Greater Sudbury today are not the individuals that will be alive to benefit from the services, by the time we have them.” 

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with Sudbury.com. She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.