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Homelessness Network: Consultant’s report ‘best money the city has spent in a long time’

Executive director of the Centre de santé communautaire, lead agency of the Homelessness Network, says report leaves him ‘optimistic’ about homelessness crisis

After examining the report presented to city council by homelessness consultant Iain De Jong, Denis Constantineau told Sudbury.com he is optimistic about the plan to overcome the homelessness crisis in Sudbury. 

Constantineau is the executive director of the Centre de santé communautaire du Grand Sudbury, the lead organization for the homelessness network and the oldest outreach program in Sudbury. Constantineau said his copy of the report was “highlighted with lots of yellow and orange.” 

De Jong is a world-renowned homelessness expert who was hired by the city to devise a plan of action to help those suffering from homelessness, and specifically those who live in the encampment in Memorial Park. The cost of the plan and report to council was $9000; a further $12,000 will allow De Jong to support the implementation of the plan and the total amount ($21,000) was funded by the provincial Social Services Relief Fund. 

Constantineau feels the cost is more than reasonable for what was given in return. 

“This is the best money the city has spent in a long time,” he said. 

The Report

The 44-page report is broken into sections that include an initial preamble before detailing the plan in three actionable phases. The preamble is educational in nature, offering statistics and better understandings of the problem and services available based on De Jong’s visits to Sudbury in late August and early September. 

The other sections include Preparation, the details of a co-ordinated response table, with “clear senior leadership,” and protocols for municipal departments to work within, as well as an inventory of available services. The section titled Mitigation details the needto include the necessity of gathering information on all current encampments and consolidate them in one place, determine priorities and begin to secure alternate locations for people. 

This before moving to the final phase, which is the planned and supported closure of the encampment.

The report also details new initiatives that are either underway or currently being explored. They include a seven-space expansion at the Four Sisters Motel (in place since late August) and the examination of a second motel to be used as “a bridge between unsheltered homelessness and permanent housing,” reads the report. 

There is also $150,000 in new funding allowances for the homelessness network and the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative (CHPI), a provincial program, will invest $1.2 million annually. 

Good intentions 

The report also details the obstacles in place in Sudbury, as well as the effects of well-meaning but unfortunately, unhelpful, community volunteers. 

Constantineau agrees with these points as well, and admits that while he understands the need and desire to volunteer, it can negatively impact both service providers and those experiencing homelessness. 

He notes that there is government-funded food going to waste when others bring meals to the downtown core. 

“In one month, last year, 1,000 meals were prepared at The Samaritan Centre and not served. So that's not just volunteer hours, but that's money to buy food, and they weren't served because people were serving soup out of the trunk of their car,” said Constantineau

“We saw, especially at Christmas time, three dinners served to the same clients. There's a lack of co-ordination there, that's not a good use of resources. And that's … a small example, but it's a very concrete example.”  

Constantineau said that regardless of the level of compassion and kind-heartedness, “it is not enough to avoid inadvertently doing more harm than good.”

The report itself does not mince words about the “problematic” engagements of untrained volunteers. It states that without training on trauma-informed care, the helper may inadvertently cause more trauma, be unable to assist in finding the proper supports and resources and as individuals, not held accountable for their practices the way a funded non-profit organization would be. 

As well, “The intention of informal voluntary groups has to be carefully scrutinized,” the report reads. “An examination of social media from community members would seem to suggest it is toxic charity driven by ego.”

Secondary locations and tiny homes

Also at odds with what many in the community — and on council — feel is an opportunity are the report’s arguments against a safe-space encampment or tiny home city. 

The report states that in addition to there being no legal means to get people to use it, enacting a safe camping zone could result in money spent on another location that no one desires to go to, thus wasting money that could be used on a permanent solution. The same is said of tiny homes, expensive to operate and may not suit the needs of all who require them. 

“Creating a second encampment doesn't solve the problem either,” said Costantineau

He said the need for voluntary movements means there could end up being half the people in one and half of them in the other. 

“Then as a service provider, our staff are going to be running between the two trying to find people, trying to work with them and move them towards housing to meet their needs. Police are going to be involved in both encampments. bylaw is going to be involved in both encampments. Public Health is going to be involved in both encampments. That's just a waste of resources. And it's not solving the problem of housing, we're just shifting the problem.” 

Constantineau said that even if the land across from the Samaritan Centre, land referenced at council as a possible second location, is used, it may not help everyone. 

“We could put in a bunch of tiny homes there and for maybe 10 per cent of the clients, that will meet their needs. Then what do you do with the rest of the people? We can't force them in there, they have the right to choose. And if it doesn't meet their needs, it doesn't meet their needs.”

There is what’s known as Point-in-Time Count this week, a one-day snapshot of homelessness in each community in Canada. That should provide an additional update to the numbers contained in the report. 

The statistics note the population of people experiencing homelessness in Sudbury is overwhelmingly male and single, and almost half identify as Indigenous. However, far from the 1,500-2,000 homeless people in Sudbury suggested at the council meeting, Constantineau said the approximate current figure is 150 people.

“Now, are there people who are at risk of homelessness? Are there people living in poverty? Absolutely. But that's not what we're talking about,” said Constantieau of the immediate priorities. 

“We're talking about people who are absolutely homeless, people who are unsheltered. So we need to stop thinking we know we need to stop thinking it's 2,000 or 3,000 people. That doesn't mean it's not a crisis. But it isn't 2,000.”

Affordable housing

At the heart of the report and the work Constantineau does is the need for affordable housing, something he said Sudbury is greatly lacking.

“We've lost over 100 units in the downtown core, rooming houses, bachelor and one-bedroom apartments that were really affordable,” said Constantineau. “Was it ideal housing? No, not at all. But it was affordable housing, and the only solution to homelessness is housing.”

And from housing to housing support.

“You need to work with the clients,” said Constantineau. “Every person has a story, and you need to work with that client and find out what their needs are, and work with them so that they have a choice. And then you can find something that's appropriate for them, and then support them in that housing, so it can become successful housing.” 

It’s the ‘housing first’ approach that is the foundation of a housing plan, ensuring someone has a home regardless of their level of need and then offering the services afterwards.

“Years ago, before we adopted a housing first approach, we just house and rehouse the same people over and over again,” said Constantineau. “They didn't have any support so they didn't pay their rent, they got kicked out, and they're back, and you're housing them again. 

“So the idea now is to house them, and then surround them with the supports they need, so that they can stay housed.” 

Whether that is life skills, trauma recovery, or health or addictions care, the support is in place until it is not required and then offered to the next person in need. 

So far, Constantineau likes the plan presented. 

“I'm optimistic that the city is going to implement the recommendations because it's based on data, and based on experience,” said Constantineau. “I'm optimistic it can work in terms of developing a system that can be effective, am I optimistic in the potential outcomes, but that's still going to depend on certain factors that are outside of our control, and that's access to housing.”

He does, however, think it makes more sense than what has happened thus far.  

“Especially with respect to encampments, which was just enforcement, and which we see hasn't worked, because we're just taking them from one spot and moving them to another.” Constantineau also said the key to the whole plan is coordination. “And I know half of the population just rolled their eyes when I said that, ‘oh, great, more paperwork’, but the reality is, the right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing. And I'm not convinced right now that we're all on the same page,” said Constantineau. 

“We need to have bylaw enforcement, the police, social services and frontline workers all on the same page and all agreeing that this is the only approach that will be successful in addressing encampments.”

You can find the Greater Sudbury Encampment Response Guide here