Pandemic, hot real estate market fuelling homelessness in rural Elgin County

·4 min read

An Elgin County health agency is hoping to tackle the growing homelessness crisis in rural communities amid increasing demand for its services.

West Elgin Community Health Centre is serving more than 30 adults and children either at risk or experiencing homelessness in Dutton Dunwich and West Elgin, a combined population of 9,000.

"I've been in the role for three months now, and since coming on, the caseload has doubled," said Tanya Dale, the centre's rural homelessness systems navigator, a post created this year to support people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in Elgin County outside St. Thomas.

"We kept seeing more and more people coming saying, 'I've been living in this house for 20 years, the landlords decided to sell the house. I can't afford market rent, and there's nothing for rent as it is.' "

It's a stark contrast to three years ago, said health centre chairperson David James.

"Typically, the centre used to have one, maybe two clients," dealing with homelessness, he said. "They could cope with that kind of workload. Now, it's . . . five, six to eight to 10 . . . and so on."

In response, the centre teamed with community groups last year to create the Homelessness Coalition of West Elgin and Dutton Dunwich, made up of concerned residents, health centre members and municipal and provincial politicians.

The group aims to tackle two primary issues: the short-term emergency situation, for example, by supporting those who are homeless in the winter; and the lack of affordable and rental housing.

In a bid to get the rest of Elgin County on board, the coalition prepared for area municipalities a 62-page report detailing the increase in homelessness in rural communities and immediate and long-term housing needs.

"(Hidden homelessness) is something which is probably everywhere, but it's particularly prevalent in rural areas," James said.

"Typically, everyone knows everyone else. There's a lot of stigma associated with homelessness. People don't want to . . . hold up their hand and say, 'I'm homeless, could you help me?' "

Hidden homelessness, which commonly takes the form of couch surfing or staying with friends, affects everyone from families to youth and seniors.

Over the years, the invisible problem has become more apparent in rural areas, exposing gaps in the housing system and the lack of resources for vulnerable populations.

In Aylmer, the East Elgin Housing Initiative emergency shelter that runs through the winter housed eight people in its first year between 2019 and 2020, said the report, released last month. That jumped to 23 last winter.

Apart from five shelters in St. Thomas, there are no other shelter services for county residents.

Chalk up the growing crisis to the pandemic, which led to a tight housing market that squeezed out many low-income adults and families, James said.

"The pandemic is the largest cause. I don't think there's any question," he said. "The one impact, certainly, is a lot of people lost their jobs."

Compounding the issue is more people moving to rural areas from urban centres, like Toronto and Hamilton, and more landlords selling previously rented single-family homes.

A long-term coalition priority is affordable housing. More than 1,000 people in Elgin are on the waiting list for subsidized housing, up from 374 in 2017. They face a two- to nine-year wait.

Fewer than two per cent of the 2,000 housing units planned county-wide are considered affordable. The report recommends making a minimum of 20 per cent of new units affordable to house moderately to low-income households.

Funded through the City of St. Thomas, the report was conducted by Welch Consulting Inc. The coalition will present it to all area municipalities at a meeting Wednesday.

"From our point of view, we're hoping that coming out of that meeting will be some plans for next steps," James said.

"There is no quick fix," he added. "There's a whole bunch of things . . . we can do or start to do, including updating official plans and changing zoning bylaws to help with short-term and long-term issues."

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press

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