Homeless youth in Collingwood are not going unnoticed, but for those who are noticing, the cases and numbers are indicating a growing problem.
"(Youth homelessness) is more of an emerging issue that's coming out," says Dwayne O'Connor, executive director with Home Horizon. "There's more of a crisis than people thought."
While Home Horizon has been helping with homelessness in Collingwood for 12 years, it switched its focus to youth in 2016, coinciding with the opening of the Barbara Weider House — a seven-bed facility.
O’Connor sees growth in the future for the youth shelter, but extra beds will take time.
In the meantime, Home Horizon is partnering with other community organizations to start a makeshift out-of-the-cold program this year in the Georgian Triangle area to help reach out to the homeless population still living in the woods despite frigid temperatures.
"It doesn't exist here just yet, so this year we're going out in groups to provide supplies (such as blankets, food and toiletries), support and information to people we know are living in 'tent cities,'" he says.
There is no funding currently being allocated for the project, so O'Connor says all the people participating are volunteering their time, and the supplies are from community donations. The OPP, Salvation Army, Youth Haven, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit and the Red Cross are all participating in the new endeavour.
"From our reporting, there seems to be about five different (tent cities) in the area, so we'll be hitting those five," he says.
A home for Christmas
To read the beginning of Alex and Rayne’s story of homelessness in Simcoe County, read Part 1 of this series by clicking here.
While some help is on the way for teens living in tents in Collingwood’s forests, Alex and Rayne have found other help and have moved into a home elsewhere in Simcoe County.
Although Alex (he asked his last name not be used), 19, and Rayne (she asked her real name not be used), 20, have struggled with homelessness over the past couple of years, and still struggle now with trust, they are grateful for the people in Collingwood who have helped them along the way.
“There were only three people who actually helped us — the (Collingwood) library staff: Beth, Kaitlyn and Kim," Rayne says. "They barely know anything about us ... what we’ve been through.”
“Maybe there is some hope,” adds Alex. “There are some people out there that are trying to help the situation.”
Alex and Rayne were just housed as of Nov. 12. They count their blessings they were able to find a place to live before the extreme cold weather hit.
“We would have loved to stay in Collingwood ... I find Collingwood home. Because there was a lack of resources, we had to move out of the area. That’s part of the problem: the lack of resources.”
The duo says they called at least 50 places in Collingwood, including hotels with weekly rental options, before settling for a place in Oro-Medonte.
“I had lined up work for this winter (in Collingwood),” says Alex. “Now I have to go on ODSP for the winter. I have psoriatic arthritis from being homeless off and on — having to carry everything we owned, building shelters, walking everywhere. Hopefully we find a doctor here that can help get me into physical therapy so I can get a job. I would love to be able to work again. I don’t want to sit on my butt all winter.”
Having lived on the street and experienced homelessness first-hand, Alex and Rayne both have ideas on how the issue could be solved at the local level.
“There are so many abandoned buildings in Collingwood. Renovate them,” says Alex. “That would help a lot of youth to get on their feet, because that could be cheap housing. Even if you charge $700 a month, a kid on Ontario Works could afford that.”
It’s not just physical resources that need attention. “They should have more youth workers at Housing Resources. Right now, they have two workers for the entire homeless population in Collingwood, not just youth,” he adds.
Alex would also like to see the Collingwood Youth Centre expanded with a few beds to help youth in crisis who have nowhere else to go.
“I would like to see housing that is for teenagers, or between the ages of 15 and 25. We’re the people who are having the most problems. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told, ‘Just go home. Go see your parents.’ I don’t have that option. My mom and dad won’t allow me to move in with them,” says Rayne. “It hurts.”
The couple also thinks there should be some emergency housing in the county that is first come, first served.
“I called Youth Haven back when I was first homeless at 16. It was my first time. I needed somewhere to stay the night. It used to be first come, first served. I really did think that was the best idea. There was no reserved beds or waiting list,” says Rayne.
“It used to be a drop-in centre where there were always beds available,” says Alex.
New initiative coming from Home Horizon
O'Connor concedes that they are always full and there is a wait list to get into the Barbara Weider House.
"It's not a typical wait list. It all depends on what's going on with that particular person. If a person is in real crisis, they're put at the head of the list."
"We're looking to expand to 10 beds," he says, adding that the timeline is dependent on how many donations Home Horizon can get. "We have a plan for it, but we have to wait until we get the money."
O'Connor is hopeful that by next year, a full out-of-the-cold program will be in place in Collingwood that will include an emergency shelter.
"We have two churches that are willing to donate space so far. We have to go through the legislative pieces to make sure everything is set up properly so we can actually provide food and lodging for between 15 and 25 people per night, from November to May," he says. "We have the background done; we just have to make sure we have the space in place and enough volunteers to run it and enough food donated."
Homelessness by the numbers
Everyone Counts: The 2018 Simcoe County Homeless Enumeration Report was released by the county on Nov. 13.
The report was the county’s first provincially mandated, federally supported initiative intended to identify, engage, and survey as many people experiencing homelessness as possible. The goal is to ensure efforts can be made to address respective local needs and, ultimately, end homelessness.
“We designed the study at a regional level,” says Doriano Calvano, manager of social policy and planning with the County of Simcoe. “At the regional level, our rates of homelessness are alarming.”
A total of 697 people were counted as experiencing homelessness on April 24, who agreed to participate in the survey. Simcoe County’s rate of homelessness was approximately 14 people for every 10,000 residents.
Twenty-four homeless people in Collingwood were counted.
Youth (including 11 youth-led families, 77 single-person youth households, and 133 dependents) were over-represented among the homeless population, making up 35 per cent of people experiencing homelessness, yet only 13 per cent of the county’s population. Single youth (aged 16 to 24) made up 16 per cent of survey participants including nine unaccompanied minors (aged 15 to 17).
“When someone is a homeless youth in Collingwood, it’s not going to be so much different from a youth experiencing homelessness in Barrie or Toronto,” says Calvano. “These are all inter-relational issues. These are family-breakdown issues. There are poverty issues. We need to look at it in a different way than we look at solving adult homelessness.”
According to the survey results, the top four reasons for homelessness in the county (across all ages) were addiction/substance use (21 per cent), the inability to pay rent/mortgage (20 per cent), conflict with spouse/partner (16 per cent) and unsafe housing conditions (15 per cent).
“The key for a lot of youth homelessness ... is to move them very quickly out of homelessness because if you move people out of homelessness who are entering homelessness for the first time, or have been there for a relatively short period of time, you have greater success that they will never return to homelessness,” says Calvano. “We have a winning opportunity to really get ahead of the curve.”
As the report was received for information during the committee of the whole at the county level, Calvano said his hope is that county councillors will take the information in the report back to their local municipal councils to try to come up with solutions at that level.
“Also, to keep that bar of knowledge up there and to break down some of the stigma associated with just the topic of homelessness,” he says. “Homelessness has a face. It has an identity. It’s someone in your neighbourhood and community and we need to support that population.”
Calvano stresses there’s one main solution: housing.
“The market is not going to solve this kind of social deprivation,” he says. “We need to intervene as a government and as communities.”
Calvano says the “gold standard” would be to facilitate emergency housing that works in conjunction with services to get people off the streets and into intervention programs, employment programs and any other supports they might need.
“That’s the key,” he says. “But at the very least ... we need to facilitate safer spaces for people.”
Mayor-elect weighs in
When mayor-elect Brian Saunderson first read the homelessness report at county council earlier this month, he was alarmed.
“I think the problem may be worse than everyone anticipated, which is disturbing,” says Saunderson. “I think it’s a very difficult issue.”
Saunderson points to strides Collingwood has made to try to help the homeless, including the Barbara Weider House, housing available through My Friend’s House, the motel voucher program through the Salvation Army and the OPP and the Housing Resource Centre.
“However, they’re at capacity, as I understand it,” he says. “It continues to be an issue and there’s a huge need out there. I think we need to figure out with the county and local stakeholders how we can expand or improve those programs and broaden the net.”
Saunderson says the Barbara Weider House is a prime example of private-public partnerships Collingwood is going to need in order to meet the service need.
“We’ve had this discussion many times at the county; how you address the Housing First program is to create the housing inventory that you can put these people in, but that’s an investment that takes time,” he says. “So, you have to triage and address the immediate issue. Every dollar we invest in the Housing First program takes away from our ability to invest capital into creating the housing inventory.”
“I think we’re going to have to be creative, from a municipal perspective,” says Saunderson. “It’s a difficult situation but I don’t think it’s one we’re ignoring.”
“I think it will be a wake-up call for all the municipalities.”
Relationships on the rocks
Alex and Rayne’s relationships with their families now are, for the most part, still strained.
“My mother lives in Newfoundland. She’s emotionally supportive, but not a mother by any means. She’s more of a friend than a mother,” says Rayne.
“My dad lives in Stayner. After everything we’ve been through, we don’t talk. My little brother messaged me for the first time yesterday in almost two years. I’m trying to mend the relationship with them,” she says. “A lot has to do with the fact that I ran away at 16 with a boy that I shouldn’t have, and I gave my son up for adoption. So, there’s a lot of tension between all of us, but I want to fix it. I love my dad and my stepmom.”
On Alex’s 19th birthday, his parents decided to get divorced.
“My dad went and lived with my niece and nephew. He has full custody of them. My mom ... there’s a lot of issues there. She started getting worse with addiction. She started drinking more. Through that, she started getting into drugs,” he says.
“It’s not healthy for me to be next to my mother when she’s going through that. She needs to get her health first and put her (other) kids first. Both my siblings have kind of cut me out for not supporting her. I’m not going to let them guilt-trip me this time. It’s not my job to save my mom.”
“I’ve asked my dad for help and he won’t. It’s not healthy for me to be in that situation. It’s caused me so many problems,” says Alex.
Looking toward the future
Alex and Rayne both have future aspirations that involve helping others. Alex wants to fight for his country, and Rayne plans to go to school to be a personal support worker (PSW).
“My uncle got into a car accident almost 10 years ago now and he lost a lot of function in his brain. My mother has told me that when my grandparents die, he’s just going to go into a home; she’s not going to take care of him,” she says. “He’s my best friend in the whole wide world. I want to become a PSW so I can take care of him instead of having to go into a home.”
“I want to join the military. I have to get my GED written first,” says Alex. “I’m looking at the military for the spring. I’ve already sent in my paperwork and talked to a recruiter.
“I want to go through for aviation electrician, fabrication, metal works. I love doing welding. That will also give me time to get my (driver’s) licence and everything else I need to get done this winter. I’m hoping I’ll get to go to Base Borden,” says Alex. “We wouldn’t have to worry about ever being homeless again.”