‘Solving the problem of homelessness requires a wider focus’

city_scope_logo-cmykOur most recent posting made reference to the homeless enumeration discussion that transpired during the Oct. 1 council meeting. 
The survey was mandated by the province, and the city retained the services of OrgCode Consulting, which works with non-profits, government, private companies and non-governmental organizations in an effort to achieve positive social change, according to their website.
During last Monday’s council discussion Ralph West, the city’s housing services administrator, conceded those involved in the enumeration did not offer homeless individuals coming forward to participate in the survey any information on services available to them “in a systematic way.”
We referred to that as a “missed opportunity.”
In an email comment to City Scope, West writes our observation was “completely appropriate.”
West included pertinent background information and so the entire content of his email is reprinted below and we thank him for his follow-up on a serious issue facing this council and the new slate to begin their four-year term in December.

Thank you for publicizing the results of the homelessness count, Ian. And, I have to say, your comment about the “missed opportunity” for working with those who were surveyed was completely appropriate, given my clumsily describing Councillor Kohler’s question as “interesting” when “tragic” might have been a better choice of adjective. When our local homelessness-serving agencies were collaboratively planning the homelessness count we discussed at some length whether to use the opportunity to create a “by name” list, with the ultimate goal of offering services to everyone on the list in some prioritized form. In the end we decided not to, not because we didn’t want to assist everyone we enumerated, but because our resources are currently so underfunded and we didn’t want to create false hope for any homeless person that their enumeration would automatically lead to the solution to their problems. The City as “service manager” presently has applicants waiting 5-7 years on our social housing waiting list and we certainly don’t want to duplicate that kind of situation for those who are in even more desperate need.

orgcode_logo_trimmedAs I mentioned in the council discussion, there were individuals and families enumerated in the count where we did follow-up with them based on urgency of need and there being at least some possible hope of assistance available. However we simply don’t have the resources available within St. Thomas and Elgin county to follow up systematically in the way that you and Councillor Kohler quite reasonably suggest we ought to.

My comment above is the response I should have made to Councillor Kohler’s question at council, given that that is the information that council and the community really needs to know. We didn’t have 159 homeless people in the city and county at the end of April of this year because no one is working on the problem of homelessness. There are multiple agencies in the community doing just that, working collaboratively, using evidence-informed approaches, squeezing every dollar we can from the province to serve this purpose, and continuously seeking to improve the systems we have so as to ensure the most appropriate and lasting solutions are found for those who are homeless. Without that work, the number of homeless enumerated would have been very much higher.

“The homeless are not themselves the problem requiring a solution as the enumeration statistics might suggest, rather they are the victims of a different problem, or more accurately, a set of problems . . .”

One last point: Although homelessness seems like it is tied to the personal problems of the homeless – and the nature of the homeless enumeration process required by the province played into that perception by focusing on the question “who are the homeless?”- the reality is that homelessness is primarily influenced by the affordability and availability of housing. In St. Thomas, for example, the vacancy rate is below 1%, and those vacancies are at the top end of the rental market, not the bottom. This puts private landlords in a position to charge ‘whatever the market will bear,’ and to pay much less attention to the standards of the units they are renting (though fortunately not all exploit that opportunity) and to choose only those tenants whose incomes are secure and who ‘present well.’ Finding a place to rent with the shelter benefits provided by OW or ODSP, or with part-time or minimum wage income has become virtually impossible. Explaining how the housing situation got to this point would take us too far afield, but suffice to say that only the development of very substantially more affordable housing units in the community will enable meaningful reduction of the homeless population.

The homeless are not themselves the problem requiring a solution as the enumeration statistics might suggest, rather they are the victims of a different problem, or more accurately, a set of problems including insufficient housing, underfunded mental health supports, the prevalence of domestic abuse of women and youth, the inadequacies of supports for veterans and so on. I’m sure you realize that, but still it bears repeating. We will always do our best to help those who are currently homeless, but solving the problem of homelessness requires a wider focus.

Once again thank you, Ian, for publicizing the results of the homeless enumeration. It can only help.

Ralph West
Housing Services Administrator
City of St. Thomas

Related posts:

Casting your vote for St. Thomas city council: The ideal candidate “is someone who is amenable to working with others to try and get things done.”

Candidates in the Oct. 22 municipal vote share their vision for St. Thomas

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