Greater awareness, more resources and affordable housing are needed to tackle a COVID-19-induced rise in visible homelessness in some parts of rural Southwestern Ontario, advocates say.
Parts of Huron, Perth and Oxford counties have all noticed an increase in people experiencing homelessness since the pandemic began nine months ago, But a national advocacy group says “hidden homelessness” has been pervasive in small towns and remote communities for years — and it’s time to tackle it.
“Homelessness is just as prevalent in rural communities as it is in urban centres, and so it speaks to this hidden issue,” said Terrilee Kelford, co-chair of the National Alliance to End Rural and Remote Homelessness. “COVID certainly has elevated the conversation.”
Kelford said in the past, rural and remote communities were better at concealing homelessness, but the pandemic has made it visible.
“We’ve had people sleeping rough in (rural communities) for years and years,” she said. “When they sleep outside, they have more ability to hide outside — in trees, for example. It’s different in an urban centre where they have to sleep under an overpass.
"That speaks to the stigma — people don’t want to identify in small communities as homeless. They do what they can to survive.”
This summer, Huron County struck a homelessness task force after Goderich Mayor John Grace declared a “homelessness crisis” in the town of about 7,600. At its peak, 15 people were sleeping rough in the town.
Goderich was able to use a local hotel to temporarily house those in need and has set up a shelter for the winter months while the task force works on long-term solutions.
Both Goderich and Exeter have waiting lists in the hundreds for affordable housing.
In St. Marys, the Perth County town formalized a community and social well-being plan to streamline the area’s social services.
Last week, Oxford County released data from an unscientific survey of people experiencing homelessness. Social Planning Council Oxford surveyed 93 people — 103 when dependent children were counted — and found 55 per cent had entered homelessness within the last year.
Kelford said the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to more visible homelessness in rural communities in many ways.
One of the most prominent is a marked rise in housing prices, making affordable housing even less attainable.
“With COVID we have seen a gentrification of rural communities,” she said. “People have the flexibility to move to the country, but it's driving house prices up.”
The pandemic also means some temporary housing options, like boarding houses or couch surfing, became less feasible with virus concerns, pushing more people to the streets.
As many well-being and counselling services shifted to online models, Kelford said access to the internet became a barrier for some seeking help in remote areas.
While raising awareness is the first step for rural communities, Kelford said better data collection on the rates of homelessness in small towns and remote regions along with increasing affordable, supportive housing are top priorities.
“If we don’t count it, we can’t prove prevalence. If we can’t prove prevalence, we can’t get federal dollars,” she said, adding there is no federal data strategy for rural homelessness.
Her organization also advocates for designated federal housing funding specifically for rural and remote communities.
In the meantime, Kelford said, smaller municipalities might have to “get creative” to find more affordable housing options and supports for those in need.
“Every community has some supports, whether it's churches or mental health or schools. When you pull those together, it’s quite amazing what a small community can do,” she said.
Perth and Huron counties have done a good job of co-ordinating services in recent months and mitigating a further rise in homelessness this fall, said Ryan Erb, executive director of United Way Perth-Huron.
“It’s a miracle that they haven’t gotten any bigger,” he said. “If we hadn’t been doing any of that work, I think the numbers would be a lot higher.”
Still, Erb said there has been a notable rise in families experiencing homelessness in his area, with COVID-19 exacerbating the issue.
In recent months, Erb said, there’s also been a spike in domestic violence, ballooning the waiting list for housing for women and children in the area. “That’s an unfortunate situation here.”
He said the provincial and federal governments will need to offer up more funding for affordable housing, along with operating dollars to hire health-care workers to support those in need. He argues this approach would save money in the long term compared to continually spending on acute care services.
But the small town efforts by Southwestern Ontario's rural communities still play a role.
Erb said these communities need to stay vigilant in their plans to tackle homelessness, mental health issues and addiction as the pandemic continues into the new year. He expects rates of homelessness could get worse before they get better.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if our numbers continue to climb in the next few months,” Erb said.
The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press