Ontario Works’ Alex Burgess discusses homelessness, affordable housing crisis

·9 min read

PERTH COUNTY – Homelessness and affordable housing were hot-button topics during the recent federal election and they continue to be issues that municipal politicians have to grapple with. Not only are these issues that occupy the minds of residents and representatives, but also those whose jobs are to provide social services to a community that is struggling to house residents affordably.

The Listowel Banner reached out to Alex Burgess, manager of Ontario Works for the City of Stratford and contact for the Perth County Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative, for a Q and A about homelessness and affordable housing.

Listowel Banner: Affordable housing is defined as rents maintained at or below 80 per cent of Average Market Rent (AMR) for at least 20 years. Both rental rates and the cost to purchase a house in Perth County have inflated so much that fixed incomes are not near that 80 per cent threshold. Has affordable housing, by definition, become unattainable?

Burgess: For some segments of the population, yes. We continue to advocate for increased social assistance rates as we know that clients on Ontario Works are in a far more difficult position when competing for available housing in the private market, seeing that a single person can receive up to $733 per month. [Banner note: According to the 10-Year Housing and Homelessness Plan for Stratford, Perth County, and St. Marys based on the 2019 provincially- approved alternate AMRs, a renter looking for a bachelor unit would need to have an income of $36,600 per year. A single person receiving $733 per month receives $8,796 per year.]

We continue to implement various programs that bridge the gap to affordability – these include such things as portable housing benefit programs. These are housing allowances that are tied to the tenant and are calculated based on their income as well as the AMR that has been set by the province. These programs allow for private market housing to become more affordable but there is still a lot of work to be done. As housing prices and rental prices continue to increase across Ontario, one of the ways we can address the disparity is through increased provincial investment into not just financial and social support for those in need, but also increased investments in the development of new affordable housing projects.

LB: Is the ‘Housing First’ philosophy causing people to fall between the cracks in the system?

Burgess: Housing First simply refers to the philosophy that housing is a basic human right that everyone should have access (to) without needing to be “housing-ready.” This means there are no requirements or goals someone has to meet that make them “eligible” to be housed. It emphasizes client choice and self-determination, focuses on a recovery orientation, and promotes individualized and client-driven supports. We utilize this philosophy across all of our programs. Our local By-Name List is utilized to ensure we know the names of all individuals in our community who are actively experiencing homelessness and helps match them to the appropriate housing support programs. By having coverage across the county and across multiple sectors such as mental health, addictions, homelessness, social assistance, and health care, we are striving for a high quality of data that captures the most accurate information available.

Our Housing First program, The Supported Housing of Perth Program (SHOPP) is a collaborative program between the City of Stratford, Optimism Place, Choices for Change, Stratford-Perth Shelterlink and John Howard Society of London and District. The program utilizes an intensive case management model and operates both a fixed site and (a) scattered-site program. SHOPP has been successful since its inception and currently has over 80 per cent of the caseload housed. Intake for this program is drawn from our local By-Name List based on the individual’s acuity (depth of need). This means that the individuals who require the high level of support that SHOPP offers are appropriately matched with the program. We continue to add resources to the program to increase caseload size. Currently, the program can support up to 70 households in the scattered-site and 12 in the fixed site model.

I would encourage you to visit the Homeless Hub for more information about Housing First and its core principles that help guide the work we do.

[https://www.homelesshub.ca/solutions/housing-accommodation-and-supports/housing-first]

LB: The fact that emergency housing is only available in Stratford at this point causes great difficulty for some people in North Perth. This is an issue that has been known for years and there has been work done on it. Is there any progress that can be reported on this front?

Burgess: We are always focused on taking a collaborative approach to identify and address any issues or gaps in the system. If you are referring to a lack of emergency shelter in North Perth… emergency shelters should always be viewed as a temporary option, not a permanent solution to someone’s housing crisis. Housing First promotes the idea that emergency shelters should be utilized when safe and appropriate as an alternative to other short-term housing options. If safe and suitable options have been exhausted, emergency shelters are utilized as a short-term accommodation to bridge someone into a permanent housing situation as quickly as possible.

We continue to seek a partnership in North Perth that will allow for the provision of emergency accommodations within the community. We offer transportation to Stratford for those who are willing to access motels in our community and can support them with transportation back to North Perth so that they can complete housing searches, view apartments and attend medical appointments. While they may be temporarily displaced to access shelter, we work toward finding permanent housing in the community of their choice.

LB: Can you expand on what length of time emergency stays last?

Burgess: It really varies on the level of engagement. Extensions are completed based on individual circumstances.

LB: What is meant by the level of engagement?

Burgess: Level of engagement speaks to how we case plan with the participants in the program. We often begin by focusing on document readiness, which entails ensuring that all necessary documentation is completed. This can include obtaining necessary identification, filing income tax, and completing an application for Rent Geared to Income housing. Having all documents ready means that participants are able to apply for private market housing as it becomes available and complete necessary applications for apartment rentals in a timely manner. The next piece lies in the housing search itself and the requirement that participants are always looking for housing options, both formal and informal. Our outreach staff, as well as community partners, support them with these efforts and help them throughout the housing search process.

LB: What is expected of them to end their homelessness and what are the criteria for the scope of what they can do?

Burgess: Each Housing Action Plan is individualized and focuses on what the individual is looking for. Housing action plans are created in partnership with the participant so that the goals they set are attainable and meaningful for them. We continue to support individuals even after they leave emergency accommodations with a focus on long-term, permanent housing at the forefront of the work that we do.

LB: What constitutes social and familial ties to Perth County for homeless people?

Burgess: If someone did not become homeless in Perth County, their last known address was not in Perth County or they are not historically from Perth County, we look at social and familial ties. This is exactly as it sounds – it focuses on the question of whether or not they have connections to the community through friends, family, community agencies or programs and have been active with those programs. We look at their last known address if it is outside of Perth County and how long they have been in that community as part of eligibility. We are funded to provide homelessness services for individuals and families in Perth County and we need to ensure we prioritize residents of our geographic region.

LB: Both homelessness and lack of affordable housing are not problems unique to North Perth, Stratford, Perth County, Ontario or Canada – do you ever feel like new methods of approach need to be taken to deal with these issues? Is there fundamental problems that need to be dealt with that are causing this crisis?

Burgess: The increased number of people experiencing homelessness is not unique to our region. As a member of Built For Zero Canada, we are one of 40 communities across the country working as part of this collaborative effort to look at our systems, review our programs and share best practices that have worked to drive reduction in homelessness. We continue to share learnings across regions so we can look at our programs, re-evaluate based on the data we have available to us and implement changes that drive reductions in the number of people experiencing homelessness.

The housing crisis is well documented in our country and the affordability of housing continues to be out of reach for so many people across Canada. The federal government has implemented the National Housing Strategy that aims to end chronic homelessness in Canada. They have created a 10-year plan, which has more than $70 billion attached to it with a focus on the following initiatives:

- Creating new housing supply;

- Modernizing existing housing;

- Providing resources for community housing providers; and

- Promoting excellence through innovation and research.

Locally, we have aimed to end chronic homelessness by 2025, in conjunction with the provincial government’s mandate, and are working alongside our BFZ-C partners to implement and inform strategies in our area that drive reductions in homelessness.

Housing is a human right and it will take collaboration across all levels of government to implement system-level changes to address affordability. Locally, we continue to look at portable housing benefits and programs that increase the availability of rental housing while exploring affordable housing builds such as the upcoming affordable housing project on Britannia Street in Stratford.

I would encourage you to look through our five-year plan as well for more information about the work we are doing in our community.

[https://www.stratford.ca/en/inside-city-hall/resources/Social_Services/Housing/Ten-Year-Housing-and-Homelessess-Plan-Update-2020-2024.pdf]

Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner

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