County’s updated homelessness plan put on pause at province’s request

BRUCE COUNTY - There was a certain amount of frustration expressed at the April 4 meeting of Bruce County council, regarding an information item on the county’s housing and homelessness plan.

Under the Housing Services Act 2011, service managers must review their local plans on housing and homelessness every five years and do an update every 10 years.

According to the report presented to council by Tina Metcalfe, director of human services, the province is reviewing its current policy direction and has asked service managers to put their reviews and updates on hold for the time being.

Bruce County staff began their review last year, have conducted community engagement sessions, and have the draft plan ready for review.

Not unexpected

County Coun. Kenneth Craig (Kincardine) said, “This is perhaps not unexpected, but is kind of a disappointing direction from the ministry.” He asked Metcalfe if she could provide some information on the possible “beneficial outcome” from this delay.

Metcalfe explained that the county is completing its 10-year review, as per legislation. The ministry recently advised that it is reviewing its policy direction that guides local plans, to ensure they align with government priorities, and has asked service managers to delay their plans until they receive further communication from the ministry. She stated the ministry understands the need to “provide guidance in a timely manner” and will provide updates as soon as possible.

As for the local plan, Metcalfe said staff will comply with directions and await further direction before presenting the final plan. However, in the interim, staff will “actively continue with council-approved priorities regarding our community-based planning and the delivery of housing and homelessness services” as outlined in the 2024 budget.

“Work will continue to move forward,” she said. In addition, staff will present council with a report summarizing the themes gathered during the community consultation sessions “to ensure actions continue to be responsive to community feedback.”

Increase of 500 per cent on nights of shelter

Deputy Warden Luke Charbonneau (Saugeen Shores) said he understood the situation staff is in, and that they’re doing the right thing to delay the final plan. However, he went on to say that only a couple of meetings ago, county council heard a report on the nights of shelter that have been provided through the partnership with the YMCA. “Over the last five years, there’s been a 500 per cent increase,” he said, noting the numbers showed there were some “11,000 nights of shelter provided to homeless people in our county.”

Charbonneau continued, “That’s just one statistic of many statistics.” The demand for affordable housing and county housing “continues to grow … at a concerning rate and everybody, from the prime minister on down admits we have a housing crisis. Crisis generally … requires rapid action - not delayed action. As Coun. Craig rightly said, it’s concerning.”

He said he’s concerned about “any delay,” although he appreciates staff’s approach, and that they’re going to continue to do the things council has directed them to do through the business plan.

“But we need to do more,” he added.

He reiterated the 500 per cent increase in nights of shelter, and said he’s seen no sign it’s going to do anything other than increase. “I just don’t think what’s in the business plan now is enough,” he said, “and I’m eager to do more. I think council is, too. I’m eager to have this plan so we know what to do.”

Charbonneau said that while he hopes the province acts on this situation with speed, he’s not content to sit and hope.

“We’ve been waiting for planning regulation changes,” he commented. “We’ve been waiting for the Provincial Policy Statement for quite a while, which has been delaying our action on housing … Now we’re waiting until fall. We can’t update our Official Plan until we do that, which means we can’t implement a lot of housing-directed policy. … We’re waiting, waiting, waiting for these policy updates, and there’s things we could be doing.

“We have this information,” he said. “Can we have the plan in draft form?”

County programming


CAO Christine MacDonald said the final draft has to go through the ministry, “so we have to follow legislatively what we’re required to do around that transfer payment agreement.” She said, “It does put us into a bit of a box,” but it doesn’t mean the county can’t respond to local needs in its programming. “We always have the room to do that,” she said, drawing attention to the upcoming municipal housing forum, and the actions that take place “separate from” the specifics involved in the transfer payment agreement.”

MacDonald went on to say the county is supporting the work of the Western Ontario Wardens’ Caucus (WOWC) in its advocacy. “We’re not alone in this,” she said.

Parallel streams

Craig commented, choosing his words carefully, that he appreciated the expressions of concern, and the guidance from the CAO about the “parallel streams we’re following.

“I would not want the provincial government to perceive that somehow or other, we are throwing this … back in their face … is there opportunity to take another step in the middle, to have staff craft a well-written letter expressing our respect for their decision … but can you tell us where we’re going, or how our homelessness plan … where does it fit in? … We’re seeking clarity.”

Warden Chris Peabody (Brockton) said, “That’s a good idea,” and further noted the quarterly meetings through the county’s new government relations office with the two MPPs, saying, “We’ll certainly add that to the list for discussion … for the spring meeting.”

Transfer payments

Aaron Stauch, the county’s new director of government relations, said, “We can certainly work on those pieces,” and added there’s a related issue regarding withholding of transfer payments for housing, from the federal government to the province.

Stautch spoke of a correlation between information about high-level discussions taking place on the transfer of the hundreds of millions of dollars to the province, and the timing of the communication from the province on pausing homelessness plans.

Peabody, who spoke of his plans to attend the WOWC conference the next day (Friday, April 5) in Woodstock, “where we set priorities on lobbying the province,” said, “This is definitely on the agenda, so I will express the council’s concerns at the meeting.”

Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times