Homelessness. It’s a fact of life for many Londoners, and all too many of them are chronically homeless.

Counting Our Way Home, a community enumeration event run by the City of London in the  spring of 2018, surveyed 406 individuals and families experiencing homelessness. The survey was done voluntarily, and is a cross section of participants. Still, the numbers are telling.

Out of those participating, 62 per cent said they experienced chronic homelessness, which was defined as six months or more.

Also included in the survey results:

  • 25 per cent were between 40 to 49 years old
  • 24 per cent were between 30 to 39 years old
  • Six per cent were 60 years old and over
  • Three per cent were 19 years old or younger
  • 63 per cent identified as male
  • 32 per cent identified as female
  • Two per cent identified as gender expansive, meaning either gender queer/gender non-conforming, or another gender identity
  • One per cent identified as transgender
  • 29 per cent identified as Indigenous or having Indigenous ancestry
  • 57 per cent identified as having an addiction
  • 59 per cent identified having mental health issues
A memorial stone to honour those who died during their experience from homelessness. The stone says "Honouring and Remembering Lives Lost Through Homelessness in London." There is snow on top of the stone and below it. A black fence is in the background.
One of the most haunting reminders of the impact of chronic homelessness is the memorial in Campbell Memorial Park

According to Counting Our Way Home, the top five challenges to securing permanent housing are:

  1. A lack of financial resources or low income.
  2. Addiction or substance abuse.
  3. Availability of affordable housing.
  4. Inability to meet secure housing requirements.
  5. Mental health issues.

Jan Richardson, the city’s manager of strategic initiatives – homeless prevention and housing, said that people experiencing chronic homelessness tend to frequently use the emergency shelter system, EMS, the justice system, and the health care system. Chronically homeless people have the added challenges of declining physical and mental health, with higher rates of trauma, addiction, and injury.

Navigating Barriers

Community advocate, Colleen Parsons, has been working with those without a home for about eight years. She recognized many barriers faced by those without housing.

So much of society is based on time. It’s something most people take for granted, but having no watch or phone to check time makes a huge difference for medical appointments, shelter check-ins, and the support workers’ schedules.

“Without reminders, without knowing what day of the week it is,” Parsons said. “It’s almost like the biggest chore of life is to actually experience living in shelter or on the streets with no time.”

Parsons added subsidized housing wait lists range from a year to four years for urgent housing loss status. Even the application is a barrier. Credit checks for housing applications are intimidating for people on social assistance, with some deciding to not apply at all.

Some housing listings are blatantly geared against low-income individuals, going as far as to exclude anyone on Ontario Works, no drug users, or people receiving Ontario Disability Support Program funds.

Because of the shortages and complications, emergency shelters are seeing longer stays – an average of 46 nights in 2017 – and this too can create barriers for those who need them.

Parsons added some people choose to live on the streets and create a space to call home, because they feel frustrated a system that is tough to navigate. Or, they have been through the emergency shelter system and are back on the street.

“When individuals are displaced from that home due to bylaw enforcement laws,” she said. “It can come very traumatic to (them).”

An increase in shelter use

London’s Emergency Shelter Progress Report found that between 2011-2017, all shelters saw longer stay times and higher occupancy rates.

Key findings from the report include:

  • The average number of stayed nights at adult emergency shelters was 46 in 2017 – an increase of 35 per cent from 2011.
  • A 96 per cent occupancy rate for adult emergency shelters in 2017, compared to 85 per cent in 2011.
  • The average number of stayed nights at Rotholme, London’s family emergency shelter, was 42 nights in 2017. (Read Angela McInnes’ article about Rotholme here.)
  • A 165 per cent family emergency shelter occupancy rate in 2017, compared to 100 per cent in 2011. However, the available bed count may not include other sleeping arrangements like cribs and dependent children may be counted as unique shelter users.

Richardson said the city saw more people staying in shelter longer. About 43 per cent of those using emergency shelters stays for over 30 days.

In contrast, 41 per cent stay for 14 days or less. Usually, those leaving shelter after that length of stay do not return, as they resolved the issue leading them to shelter.

London’s emergency shelters don’t have a length of stay policy. Instead, a conversation about housing plans begins after a prolonged stay.

“It is not practical to think that this will be solved in a very quick way,” she said. “For those who have experienced chronic homelessness.”

The Unity Project for Relief of Homelessness in London used to have a 30 to 42 day stay limit, because of a government funding model. The stay limit ended around two years ago. Chuck Lazenby, the executive director or the Unity Project, said the shelter now focuses on each person’s housing and stability, regardless of the length of stay.

Focusing on finding permanent housing

The Unity Project provides 37 emergency shelter beds and eight supportive housing units for people of all genders. A housing stability worker helps the housing unit residents until they find their own home. In addition, a caseworker works with someone in an emergency shelter for more than 14 days.

The metal sign of the Unity Project in London, Ontario. The words "Unit yProject" are in silver letters. There are snow and rocks on the ground.
The Unity Project offers services to people of all genders.

Working towards a housing plan goes beyond providing basic needs such as meals and beds.

“We’re trying to reconfigure our services,” Lazenby said. “So that it’s actually part of an intervention of the experience of homelessness.”

The shelters’ shift in focus is one of the many changes she saw since 2001.

London post-Tent City

In 2001, the Tent City movement began. People experiencing homelessness occupied a downtown London park to address the impact of homelessness in London.

This eventually sparked the Unity Project.

In 2017, the Unity Project received a $200,108 Community Vitality Grant to apply the Housing First model to their shelter. Housing First prioritizes finding permanent housing for someone before working on the issues leading to their loss of housing.

Harm reduction strategies are standard for clients who are dealing with drug use. As a principle of Housing First, accessing housing or support services has no required level of sobriety.

Lazenby said the past year was a difficult one.

“We are still seeing people who are sleeping on the streets,” she said. “Seeing that shelters are full, so I think that has been a tough, tough thing for us to face despite all the work that’s been put in.”

Regardless of each person’s experience with homelessness, the goal is to find the best housing for them based on their unique needs.

Seeing an individual first and creating a housing plan

The City of London uses VI-SPDAT (Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool), which measures the social and health needs of individuals and families. It then determines the best housing for them once those needs are assessed.

“We’ve found that to be a much more helpful way to assess chronic homelessness than the length of stay,” Richardson said. “Because it also allows us to look at the unique needs of our young people, whose experience with homelessness is quite different from an older man, for example, or woman.”

Yet, there are some notable numbers in the survey responses. Men, and specifically Indigenous men, are disproportionately represented. Emergency shelters are near or at capacity, and average stay times are increasing.

Chronic homelessness will continue in London, but there are people on the front lines who are trying hard to make sure it will come to an end.

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