Standing in the checkout line with baby supplies in tow for her soon-to-be-born granddaughter, Rhonda Collis was surprised when a familiar face greeted her at the cash register.
The cashier quickly summoned the store manager. Collis, a retired Peel community development worker, spent her career caring for vulnerable and homeless youth through the Region’s health department, and helped both women through a difficult time in their lives as teenagers.
“Here they were, gainfully employed, and both of them said to me, ‘You're getting the family discount…The support you provided inspired us to believe in ourselves and to move forward with our lives,’” Collis said, calling the moment one of the highlights of her 24-year career. Her granddaughter is now a teenager, and though Collis retired four years ago, the work in her downtown Brampton community is far from over. She continues to advocate for comprehensive services, the foremost being direct housing subsidies, to address chronic homelessness.
“We have a problem that needs to be solved as of April 1, 2021,” Collis said, citing the end date for the $28.9 million in emergency funding, secured by the Region from higher levels of government, to support expanded homelessness services during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Just because it gets a little warmer, it doesn’t mean things are going to get better for people.”
Underlying the homelessness crisis in Peel is a growing affordable housing shortage, the apparent product of years of underfunding regional housing strategies. In June 2019, Peel’s Centralized Wait List for affordable housing was at 14,997 people, up from 13,597 the year before.
The Region’s annual targets under its 2017 Home For All Strategy aimed to yield 7,500 affordable units annually, in partnership with the private sector, between 2018 and 2028. The plan has effectively been abandoned in favour of a $1-billion Housing Master Plan, which still lacks one third of its required funding. It calls for the creation of 5,300 affordable units and 280 emergency shelter beds in the next 14 years.
According to figures from a 2018 Point In Time Count conducted by the Region, 922 people were identified as not having a home on the April night selected for the study. Staff noted that this figure likely does not capture the full scope of the homeless population in Peel. Those experiencing “hidden homelessness,” such as people who are couch surfing, or members of marginalised groups, are more likely to be undercounted, it states.
For those experiencing homelessness, the sudden closure of places of refuge such as coffee shops and public libraries during the pandemic has added pressure on the Region’s service providers, which operate on a no-turn-away policy.
Though the federal government is eyeing spring of 2021 as a target for widespread vaccine rollout, the need for emergency programming to support Peel’s homeless population during the pandemic is all but certain to persist. Staff are now in contingency planning mode.
“Without additional long-term, or sustained pandemic related funding, all services noted will end as of March 31, 2021,” reads a December 10 report to council. “As a result of this expected end date to the emergency COVID-19 funding from the provincial and federal governments; a transition plan will be developed in early 2021 that will ensure a smooth transition of services and clients back to pre-COVID service levels.”
The funding has enabled Peel to relocate about 250 people in hotels to accommodate physical distancing measures within shelters, and increase on-site health clinic access. Peel spokesperson Lesley Hudson confirmed the Region is aware of one person in its system who later died in hospital due to COVID-19.
Following direction from Council in mid-October to find “immediate solutions” to assist the homeless, the money has also been used to boost winter programs such as Out of the Cold, operated in partnership with St. Leonard’s Place Peel in Brampton. It provides emergency shelter for men, winter clothing, laundry facilities, snacks and breakfast. The Region is also developing another homelessness program, to be announced, through Westedge Church in Port Credit.
Regeneration Outreach Community, located near Main and Church Streets in Brampton, offers daily meals, clothing, showers and developed a food bank, with support from the Region. The location serves about 200 people a week.
CEO Ted Brown said the organization’s budget hovers at around $1 million per year. It received $517,000 during the pandemic to enhance programming as part of the overall $28.9 million in emergency funding.
“Quite frankly, I am very concerned going into 2021,” said Brown, fearing that ongoing job losses due to the pandemic may add pressure to community service providers. “We’ve got to plan on serving more people, and maybe it’s serving more people with less money.”
For another non-profit, Sai Dham Canada, the emergency funding was the first substantial grant in the last nine years to its food bank, to the tune of $629,000 in federal and $166,000 in provincial support.
“They came [up] with the number because of the huge volume by an organization which is not supported by any other food bank. Rather, we are procuring [our] own food,” said Vishal Khanna, who co-founded the organization with Subhra Mukherjee.
Khanna rhymes off numbers to illustrate this volume: 60,000 meals served to children in Peel during the pandemic’s first wave; 200 families in a Brampton school community in need; 27 seniors’ buildings to receive food baskets before the holidays; 1,500 bags of sugar he purchased on Wednesday; work shifts up to 11 hours a day, and so on.
“It was the generosity, love and support from the Region” that facilitated their work during the pandemic, Khanna said.
Sixty-five organizations, including Regeneration Outreach Community and Sai Dham Canada, have received $4.2 million in provincial funding for COVID-19 programs, and another 18 agencies are sharing $1.1 million. In its December 10 report, regional staff said they will advocate for continued support from the government, but it’s yet unclear what the spring could mean for Peel’s homeless.
For some advocates and Peel community workers with decades of experience on the frontline, like Collis and her colleague, Florence Lum, a place to live is the backbone of these services.
“I believe that there should be a team of workers who can assist them with daily activities, living, and help them to cope,” said Lum, a retired public health nurse who worked for more than 30 years across the GTA and with transitional housing clients in Peel.
The Region has managed to permanently house 600 families during the pandemic, according to its December 10 report, an accomplishment that it notes is not connected to temporary pandemic funding.
To reach Peel’s Street Helpline, call 1-877-848-8481.
To reach Peel’s Shelter Intake Line, call 905-450-1996.
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Vjosa Isai, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer