Iain De Jong, a homelessness consultant recently hired by the city, told Sudbury.com that in the continuing search for a solution to homelessness, Sudbury is facing a situation that is complex, long-term and one that has not been helped by the pandemic.
De Jong is the president and CEO of OrgCode, an organization with the mission to help communities and organizations make homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring.” De Jong is the author of The Book on Ending Homelessness and his firm consulted on the national pandemic response and recovery plan for homeless services in Canada.
The hiring comes at the same time the city presented its 2020 Report Card on Homelessness. Released at a September 20 council meeting, it provides a view of Sudbury services and those using them, but while it identifies some of the services that changed during the early days of the pandemic, it does not include the most up-to-date information.
The report card notes that in 2020, 782 people used an emergency shelter program. (56 were children under 16, 100 were youth aged 16-24 and 40 were people over the age of 60.)
In addition to the numbers from emergency shelters, YWCA Sudbury’s Genevra House sheltered 203 women and 83 children who were escaping domestic violence.
The report card also notes there is a five-year wait to get a one-bedroom subsidized housing unit in Greater Sudbury.
De Jong is originally from Sault Ste. Marie and said he understands not just the needs that arise from homelessness, but the specific regional challenges that are faced by those in Northern Ontario. De Jong visited Sudbury recently, both in a professional capacity and on vacation, and said that there are multiple issues at play.
While the opioid crisis certainly carries a share of the blame for the worsening homelessness in Sudbury, De Jong told Sudbury.com that the COVID-19 pandemic is having a great effect on the systems in place.
Though the reduced capacity in shelters was somewhat balanced by warming and cooling stations that opened over the last year, there were other issues that became factors. Namely, that some just didn’t want to be indoors with so many strangers who could be infected.
De Jong said he heard many say “I don't want to be in an environment that has other people indoors,” especially as information about the spread of COVID became more commonly known. “And certainly I've engaged with some people in different communities that they talked about it being a conscious choice to protect themselves from COVID,” said De Jong. “So I think that that's certainly a component of it.”
Another aspect is one that may not be self-evident. De Jong said even subtle changes to the housing market have affected the rate of homelessness. Both in rising rental rates in the city, but also fewer spaces to simply rent a room in a home or rooming house.
De Jong said he encountered some who told him that when the pandemic came in full force, landlords who rented rooms in their homes did not wish to anymore.
“They didn't want strangers in their house because of COVID,” said De Jong. And while De Jong said that compared to other communities in Canada, Sudbury is not that unaffordable, but there is a hidden factor: social assistance rates, and the secondary income market.
He said that social assistance rates, with Ontario Works at currently $720 for a single person (with some additional income for any children) and Ontario Disability Support Program at $1,169 per month (single person) make the current Sudbury market unaffordable. That, and the ability to make extra money is also affected by the pandemic.
“I could receive income assistance and then engage in informal labor or day labor or panhandling, or any of those sorts of other ways that people sometimes engage in to make money,” said De Jong.
“And now COVID has completely changed the way that the secondary labor market works, and they have less access to resources that could have been used for housing.”
This lack of income, along with a lack of subsidized housing options, is exacerbating the problem of homelessness in Sudbury.
But De Jong said that he “can’t stress enough” how impressed with the service providers in Sudbury. “So thoughtful, compassionate, professional and knowledgeable,” he said.
Because of this, De Jong believes the best approach is to co-ordinate these groups more formally.
“What the real opportunity in communities like Sudbury is, how do we help align that expertise in a new plan, in a new form of co-ordination, in a new joint process of communication around prioritization activities,” he said.
He also notes that the complaint-based removal of the homeless from areas such as Memorial Park can actually detract from the solutions.
“You start having reactions that don't necessarily help,” said De Jong. He said that if you just move the encampments along, as opposed to understanding the complexity of the issues, it can make things worse.
As well, De Jong said it is important to consider “how we work with a number of stakeholders and a community to really understand the complexity of what's going on, transfer some knowledge about what homelessness really is, and what the response system is and how it works.”
De Jong said that an issue in finding solutions to homelessness is that many believe they are all experiencing the same issue, rather than several different ones that led them to this place.
“When we think about community responses to homelessness, and even encampments, we often homogenize people experiencing homelessness,” said De Jong. “We paint them all with the same brush. We just think that well, homelessness is is the factor that they have in common, and therefore they must have similar characteristics.”
But this is far from the truth. De Jong says someone’s route to homelessness, and how long they have been experiencing homelessness, is important even just to understand how to better reintegrate people.
“How do we help people reintegrate into our neighborhoods, into our apartment buildings, as opposed to ‘other-izing’ people experiencing homelessness (making someone feel outside or ‘other than normal’), and seeing them as being incapable of being served and supported.”
It is this ability to see the human, and the complexity of the human that will be the key, said De Jong. “As unique as someone's journey into homelessness was, so too, will there be a uniqueness to their journey out of homelessness.”
And that is why it is hard to put a set timetable on solving the problems.
“If you are truly centred on resolution, encampments cannot be resolved overnight,” said De Jong. “You can move encampments along, sure, but you're just going to displace people. Then there'll be the impacts on the people experiencing homelessness, impacts on other neighbourhoods, businesses or public spaces.”
De Jong said that the timeline truly has to come down to the needs of each person if it is to be a long-term solution.
“We look at the unique needs of each person - and each person has their own very customized plan for how they can exit homelessness in a safe and appropriate way - then we'll get a better sense across the entire community of how long this might take,” he said.
“But until we can dig a little bit deeper with the specific needs of each person, it's really impossible to say how long this will take.”