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Study recommends 'hub' not shelter to tackle homelessness

'Building a shelter without concurrently building affordable housing is akin to putting an entrance door onto a building without an exit door,' states the consultant report from the homeless shelter feasibility study
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Sara Peddle (left) from the David Busby Centre in Barrie brought 28 mats and 25 blankets for the Collingwood Out of the Cold initiative back in 2019. Pam Hillier of 211 Community Connection received the donation. Erika Engel/CollingwoodToday files

Study results are in, and the recommendations could see Collingwood blaze a trail that would save dollars while doing more to help people experiencing homelessness in South Georgian Bay.

As their first major act as the new operating agency for Out of the Cold Collingwood, the David Busby Centre is releasing the outcomes of the South Georgian Bay Shelter Feasibility Study, which was undertaken in the fall of 2020 to determine whether South Georgian Bay needs a permanent emergency shelter.

The David Busby Centre officially took over operations of Out of the Cold Collingwood as of May 1 from Community Connections in Collingwood.

“What I liked about (the study), is it’s not focused on building a ton of more shelters. It focused on what the solution is, which is housing. There needs to be hub services. There needs to be pathways from homelessness to housing,” said Sara Peddle, executive director of the David Busby Centre.

“We want to look at more innovative solutions. What it said, to me, is it’s better to look at more innovative solutions. It’s about making sure we’re not spending too much time keeping people in a sheltered state,” she said.

Outcome of the study

The Shelter Feasibility Study was completed by OrgCode, a consulting firm specializing in homelessness and housing approaches.

The findings for the report were informed by a survey completed by more than 300 respondents, a lived-experience survey with 32 respondents, key informant interviews, and other available data.

The cost of the feasibility study was estimated at $18,750. The Town of Collingwood pitched in $9,735, The Blue Mountains contributed $3,125, Clearview Township donated $1,000, and the organization received $6,000 in direct donations from other sources.

The study concluded that South Georgian Bay would be more suited to a Homelessness and Housing Help Hub, which would use motels with wraparound supports for people needing emergency temporary accommodation, and would use rent supplements to assist people experiencing homelessness in South Georgian Bay to become re-housed rapidly.

A permanent, standalone emergency shelter would not be feasible, according to the study.

“At best, a shelter is a band-aid in communities that are not concurrently developing affordable housing for very low-income people at the same time as it expands emergency services like shelter,” notes the report. “Building a shelter without concurrently building affordable housing is akin to putting an entrance door onto a building without an exit door.”

Based on feedback from residents, OrgCode said there seemed to be misconceptions within the community about what an emergency shelter does.

“To be clear, a shelter is not the best place to learn life skills or budgeting, nor is it the place to get ready for employment, nor is it the place to receive assistance with an addiction, nor is it the best location for mental health assistance,” wrote the report author.

In speaking with the respondents with lived experience, many pointed out that the homelessness response system has never been adequate within the community. The study also concluded that there are not large volumes of people “sleeping rough” in the community, and those who are living rough have received outreach services already.

The study notes that the increases in housing prices, a lack of affordable housing and a lack of appropriate services are the reasons why most survey respondents felt a permanent shelter should be in place in South Georgian Bay, however having a shelter does very little to address those root causes.

“A shelter will not cure housing woes in the community,” notes the report. “Adding a permanent shelter in South Georgian Bay will not negate the need for street outreach. A shelter does not solve inadequacies in the affordable housing stock.”

In regards to costs, the study notes that an emergency shelter roughly costs about $40,000 per year, per bed to operate.

“The reality is that homelessness can be ended for people in South Georgian Bay for considerably less money than managing their homelessness through shelter,” writes the report author. “Money should not be diverted away from housing people for the purpose of having a permanent shelter.”

Reaction to the study

For Pam Hillier, executive director of Community Connection, hindsight is 20/20. The results of the feasibility study make her consider whether the temporary emergency shelter was the best course of action in the first place.

“For me, it helped me see. I know we were caught up in the moment of the success we had in getting Out of the Cold Collingwood off the ground, but I wonder if we had put all that energy into creating six units somewhere in town, if we would have had more long-term impact,” said Hillier.

“I’m proud of all the work we did and with our team partners and the people we served. I think we did a lot of good, but it makes me reflect,” she said.

Hillier says the cost of operating Out of the Cold Collingwood for one season, which is six months of overnights, is about $130,000.

“And that (cost) is without our own building,” she said. “The opportunity we have right now is to take stock of our opportunities. We need to have an entry point for people. We have an opportunity to be different now.”

The current state of emergency supports in South Georgian Bay

As of April 25, 2020, Out of the Cold Collingwood ended its first season. The temporary emergency shelter, located at 250 Peel Street in Collingwood, served people experiencing homelessness from Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, Clearview and the Town of the Blue Mountains.

Within the six-month period the program ran, the emergency shelter served 53 unique individuals.

As an emergency response due to the pandemic, in April the County of Simcoe used federal and provincial funding to transition seven emergency shelters across Simcoe County – including Out of the Cold Collingwood – into COVID-19 Emergency Shelters to be run out of hotels and motels until it was deemed safe by public health to transition them back.

In September 2020, the David Busby Centre assumed oversight of the Collingwood COVID-19 Emergency Shelter.

As of May 1, the David Busby Centre has now taken over the operation of Out of the Cold Collingwood as well, and is poised to run the program once the COVID-19 Emergency Shelter closes. A date has not yet been determined on when the program will transition back.

As part of those plans, the Out of the Cold Task Force has been disbanded while two task force members, Gail Michalenko and Hillier, will become advisors to the Busby Centre’s board of directors as representation for the South Georgian Bay community. The Busby Centre plans to open a part-time office in Collingwood and has established a local bank account to ensure local fundraising and funding remains in the community.

“As Busby, we didn’t want to come in and just take over, because that’s not our style,” said Peddle, with a laugh. “We know how passionate everyone was about getting Out of the Cold Collingwood up and running, and we wanted to honour that.”

Peddle has served as executive director of the David Busby Street Centre in Barrie since 2007, and served as a past chair for the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness. While she says she’s been aware of South Georgian Bay’s experiences as a rural community dealing with homelessness through her affiliation, she notes she can’t wait to learn more from the community.

“I know what we do in Barrie won’t always work here. We want to be helpful, and we are not coming in thinking we know it all,” said Peddle.

As a mid-sized urban setting, the David Busby Centre in Barrie is currently seeing 120 people at any given time through their COVID emergency shelter model. For comparison, there are between eight to 12 individuals at any given time serviced through Collingwood’s COVID emergency shelter.

So far, Peddle notes Collingwood stands out in its reaction to homelessness.

“The people experiencing homelessness in Collingwood, aren’t as high acuity (chronically homeless) as they are in Barrie. There are moments of intensity, but there are good partnerships with the (Collingwood General and Marine) hospital and the OPP where people are (discharged) to the shelter before they end up on the street,” said Peddle. “In Collingwood, we’re seeing more episodic homelessness, rather than chronic homelessness.”

Hillier says one of the benefits to having a regional approach to dealing with homelessness is expanding available expertise. It also eliminates the need for extra administration, which reduces operation costs.

“It’s about, how do we fix this together?” said Hillier. “I think our community is small enough to be able to come up with what a model could look like, and that might influence other communities in Simcoe County that maybe don’t have shelter services or enough capacity.”

Imagining a new, innovative model

When asked what some of the challenges may be to getting a Housing and Homelessness Help Hub off the ground in South Georgian Bay, Peddle didn’t mince words.

“Buy-in,” said Peddle. “In society, we’ve kind of learned to manage homelessness rather than end homelessness. We tend to think of shelters (as the key solution) because we just want to get them off the street. There are all kinds of affordable (housing) plans, but they’re not fast enough or affordable enough.”

While the Out of the Cold Collingwood program is seen widely as a success, there have been challenges in discharging clients when there’s nowhere to discharge them.

“It’s really hard because the staff are wanting to motivate people to get back into housing... but it’s almost hard for staff to keep people motivated when there’s nothing to go to,” she said.

While housing units that fall into the affordable range do come up on occasion, Peddle says the competition is fierce with 30 to 40 other people also vying for the same unit.

“Shelter is only supposed to be short-term. It’s emergency shelter. The ‘emergency’ is, let’s get people off the street and into housing, but we have people who have stayed with us for months and months. And it’s not their fault,” said Peddle.

The path forward

Both Hillier and Peddle say they agree with the findings of the study that they would like to move more toward a Housing-First model when it comes to addressing homelessness in South Georgian Bay.

‘Housing First’ is an approach to ending homelessness that centres on moving people experiencing homelessness into independent and permanent housing as a first step. Having a permanent emergency shelter is counter to that goal, as it is not intended to be permanent housing.

“It’s not about fixing people. There are lots of people who are housed who have issues with addiction or mental health. It’s about how we help them recover from that homeless state,” said Peddle.

As an example, Peddle notes that normally through a transitional housing model, once an individual stabilizes, they are asked to move out and move on. She says a Housing and Homelessness Help Hub model would change that process.

“Someone would go into a hotel for a couple of days, and then we have a unit ready for them with on-site supports and we can get that group settled, and then the staff moves out. (We’re looking at) flipping that on its head,” she said. “I think we’ll get further along with getting people to stay in housing than through the traditional ways we’ve been doing things.”

Peddle said the Busby Centre is currently doing strategic planning for the next three to five years for the entire organization, and Collingwood will be part of that planning.

“We want to get some action committees together to make sure we can move forward on the recommendations of the feasibility study,” said Peddle, adding that the Busby board is currently looking through the feasibility study so they haven’t yet settled definitively on a course of action.

“I can say we are committed to following the direction of the community,” said Peddle.

Peddle and Hillier say they’re in the process of making plans to formally present the study to local councils who invested in the study, including Collingwood. They also say they’d like to collaborate with community partners on any solutions and receive feedback before making final decisions.

“What we do know, is there will be services ongoing,” said Hillier. “There will be outreach, and the motel voucher programs.”

The most important thing to the team at the Busby Centre is to hear from people, says Peddle.

“Our outreach team has been coming up here quite often just to talk to people and see what’s going on,” she said. “Us coming up doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to eradicate homelessness in the community, but we’re going to darn well try.”

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 14 years of experience to her role as reporter for Village Media, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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