Pembroke – The number of people being helped by the County of Renfrew as they deal with homelessness has increased dramatically in the last year and with a moratorium on evictions just lifted, things may get a lot worse.
Just who the homeless population are and where they are coming from was made a bit clearer to members of Renfrew County council last Wednesday.
“80.4 per cent are local residents who have become homeless due to changing circumstances,” Andrea Patrick, the manager of Ontario Works, told council via a ZOOM link.
She was following up on a request from Warden Debbie Robinson the previous month to have a clearer presentation on homelessness in the county. The presentation showed not only are more people needing assistance, but the type of help has changed due to the pandemic. In between March 2019 and February 2020, which was roughly a year prior to the pandemic, homelessness data showed 133 hotel stays occurred in the county and 51 bus tickets were purchased with a total annual expenditure of just over $50,000.
In contrast, March 2020 to February 2021 (with the numbers for February still not totally tabulated) showed the amount spent had increased almost sixfold to almost $300,000. The shift was also dramatic in what kind of help was being given. Instead of bus tickets, which decreased to only 12, the need was for hotel stays, which doubled to 276.
Ms. Patrick explained prior to the pandemic bus tickets were issued to larger centres like North Bay or Ottawa. Since the pandemic began staff have been working with individuals in the communities and not moving them.
“We are trying to keep them safe locally and not have that movement,” she said.
In regards of who are the homeless, the study showed most are single.
“The vast majority are coming to us for the first time,” she added.
As well, most are locals. Things like the hot property market are affecting people who might have lost their place to live when a dwelling sold, she said.
“We are seeing high market rent and low availability,” she said.
A single person on Ontario Works receives $733 a month and a single on Ontario Disability Support $1,169, so there are a lot of pressures, she said. As well, some landlords now require proof of income. The county staff has also seen some people who have been “couch surfing” are now coming to the county for help, she said.
“I find this very disturbing,” Warden Debbie Robinson said. “Can you imagine surviving on $733 a month. That is your rent and your food. That is absolutely impossible.
“This is a crisis waiting to happen,” she continued. “It is not going to get any better unless we do something about it.”
The warden said the county needed to look for solutions, including advocating for assistance and funding through working on this with other groups.
“Large centres and their homeless get a lot of ink, but there is homelessness in rural areas,” she said.
Horton Mayor David Bennett said with eviction enforcement coming, he questioned what the future would hold.
“Where are we headed really?” he asked. “We need to be there to support our residents. They have no place to go.”
Renfrew Reeve Peter Emon called the information sobering. He noted many organizations in the area are working on homelessness including the county. He said it is not only the homeless who are suffering but people just on the edge.
“There are people working who need assistance,” he said. “If you go by the food bank and see the lines.” People are faced with a crisis when they need money for prescriptions or to deal with injuries.
“Good housing, meals and proper medical care are equally important as having a bed,” he added.
Mayor Jennifer Murphy of Bonnechere Valley said it was disturbing to see the statistics show the number of homeless individuals in the area have tripled or quadrupled during the pandemic. She questioned if there has been a push to stop evictions. Staff said there has been discussion in some areas about lobbying to have this changed.
Deep River Reeve Glenn Doncaster said the Federation of Canadian Municipalities is also looking at the issue of homelessness, advocating and making recommendations.
Warden Robinson said this issue needs to be looked at further and long-term solutions found.
“We have to take care of our residents. The ones that are easy to take care of and the ones that challenge us a bit,” she said.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader