On Jan. 1 of 2014, the city implemented a 10-year Housing and Homelessness Plan, as mandated by the province’s Housing Services Act.
The goal of the plan – in conjunction with Elgin county – is to work toward meeting the housing and support needs of the community while eliminating long-term homelessness.
At Monday’s (May 13) meeting, a mid-term report was presented to council detailing four strategic directions: increase housing supply options; provide supports to keep people in the sustainable housing they currently have; enhance the current system to prevent homelessness and when homeless, “rapidly” move people into stable housing; and pursue community partnerships.
Let’s focus in on the homeless strategy as 2014 was a significant first year with the rollout of the city’s plan.
In August of that year, homeless advocate Jason McComb was back in St. Thomas as he headed westward across Canada on his Walking in the Free World for homelessness trek.
At that point on his journey, he had already met with Prince Charles and Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes and hung out with the Trailer Park Boys.
However, it was a meeting at the end of July with then MP Joe Preston and MPP Jeff Yurek that is worth revisiting.
Preston asserted, “It’s time to get outside the same box we’ve been in,” when dealing with the homeless in St. Thomas and Elgin. It’s not easy to fix but it is easy to take steps.”
And that next step, advised Yurek — with the reminder it was a municipal election year — was to throw the issue at the mayoral and aldermanic candidates.
Well, Preston is now in the mayor’s seat and councillors Gary Clarke, Jeff Kohler, Joan Rymal, Linda Stevenson and Mark Tinlin were successful in the 2014 municipal vote and again last fall.
While Preston has but a few months under his mayoral chain, the five councillors are in their second term working with the Housing and Homelessness Plan.
So, referencing the five-year report card presented to council, what progress has been made to date with regard to homelessness and what are the recommendations with targets, actions and measures for the future?
On Oct. 1 of last year, council was in receipt of the first-ever St. Thomas and Elgin county homeless enumeration, what was referred to as “an important first step in ensuring that the goal to shift from managing homelessness to ending it gains valuable momentum and a renewed sense of urgency.”
The enumeration, mandated by the province was, in fact, an actual survey conducted with individual homeless persons.
It identified 159 homeless persons, including 33 dependent children.
In addition, 17 were individuals being sheltered by Violence Against Women Services Elgin County and who did not participate in the survey.
OrgCode Consulting, which undertook the enumeration, concluded: “the existing absence of a sufficient stock of safe affordable housing into which homeless persons can be ‘diverted’ from shelter use necessitates continued investment in temporary shelter solutions to provide at least minimum levels of assistance.”
Of particular note, OrgCode recommended the city’s Community Homeless Prevention Initiative funding be reallocated away from being used for homelessness prevention – which OrgCode deemed to be relatively ineffective – toward other uses better serving the homeless population.
The five-year evaluation presented Monday indicated 104 young people accessed services through the city’s Youth Homeless Protocol last year, with just over half of those individuals aged 16 to 18.
Almost 60 per cent of them had experienced a family breakdown.
Meantime, at Inn out of the Cold, 119 homeless individuals spent a total of 2,825 bed nights between November of last year and last month.
Of that total, 27 per cent were women.
CMHA Elgin continued to operate a weekly housing drop-in centre last year which provided assistance to 141 individuals who were homeless or at immediate risk of homelessness.
As a response, late last year the Housing and Homelessness Action Group established a committee to work on the design and implementation of a fully co-ordinated access system.
“(We) have learned a great deal over the past five years through successes and challenges in efforts to implement the recommendations in the existing Housing and Homelessness Plan.”
This would not only serve the homeless but applicants for transitional/ supportive housing, social housing, affordable housing and private rental housing.
Work on this project began in earnest early this year, with a goal of having the system fully in place early next year.
Additionally, the YWCA received funding from the Status of Women Canada to address women’s homelessness and the organization has initiated a program of community meetings to develop and implement a strategy to better serve the specific needs of homeless girls and women.
Following presentation of the homeless enumeration to council last year, Ralph West, the city’s housing services administrator, noted his staff believe the survey “was an important shared exercise which served not just to establish more accurately the extent and nature of the problem of homelessness within St.Thomas and Elgin county for the benefit of better informing collaborative practices addressing this problem, but also in bringing the issue of homelessness and the composition of the homeless population to the attention of the community overall.”
At Monday’s meeting of council, West indicated his staff and the community partners “have learned a great deal over the past five years through successes and challenges in efforts to implement the recommendations in the existing Housing and Homelessness Plan.”
He advised an updated version of the plan will be presented to council this fall.
A TRUE PARK IN THE SKY
An announcement this week with far-reaching impact for the St. Thomas Elevated Park.
Following lengthy talks involving On Track board member Erica Arnett and members of the Trans-Canada Trail, what is now referred to as The Great Trail will be re-routed to cross the Michigan Central Railroad bridge, atop which is evolving Canada’s first elevated park.
The St. Thomas Elevated Park is an undertaking of On Track St. Thomas, a member of the Railworks Coalition.
The agreement includes up to $60,000 in funding to help pay for grading and surfacing the trail from Lyle Road, west of the park itself, to the bridge and contribute toward the cost of safety railings on the elevated park itself.
Just over three kilometres of the former Michigan Central Railroad right of way beyond the west end of the bridge in Southwold was purchased for this very reason.
Both St. Thomas and Southwold Township were involved in the process although neither will be contributing any funding, stressed On Track St. Thomas director Serge Lavoie.
“The money will be used to regrade that (the former rail bed) and resurface it with a hard surface . . . all aimed at making the trail fully accessible from Lyle Road all the way to King Street (in St. Thomas).”
Work will begin right away, noted Lavoie.
“Our aim is to have it done by the end of the summer. The railing will be installed at the end of June. We’re in final negotiations to lay down a sidewalk on top of the bridge that will be accessible. And that should also happen in June and July.”
Geerlinks Home Hardware in St. Thomas has agreed to donate $25,000 of lumber to construct a boardwalk which will be completed next month.
“The aim is to have as much of it done in time for the Elevated Picnic in August and then bits and pieces will be done in the early fall,” advised Lavoie.
“It definitely is a 2019 project to have the whole trail accessible, from King Street to Lyle Road.”
The impetus, reminded Lavoie, is the Doug Tarry Homes End-To-End Challenge with a goal of opening the entire length of the bridge to the public this summer.
“Doug Tarry put his $100,000 on the line and top of that he said we’re challenging all of our suppliers and competitors to get in the game and help us finish this. And this has made such a difference to the project.”
You will be able to gauge progress atop the bridge at this year’s Elevated Picnic, scheduled for Aug. 25.
“Tickets will go on sale at the end of May,” said Lavoie. “We’re 99 per cent sure we’ll have the entire length of the bridge available for the picnic.
“And then early in September, the folks who used to put on Fresh Fest (which is being re-imagined and re-branded) will be doing a sit-down dinner up on the bridge.”
It is safe to say Lavoie is more than just a little excited about the transformation of the soaring structure into a living park.
“I’ve been working on this project since 2010 and this is the most positive I’ve felt in that whole time.
He added, “I’ve been up and down on this project for so many years, with setbacks and moving forward, but never lost faith. But this is going to happen now and the community has really gotten together.”
To illustrate the growing awareness of the elevated park, Lavoie noted the 49th edition of the Shunpiker Mystery Tour earlier this month included the venue on their route map.
“We had over 1,500 people, almost all of them from the London area, came up to the bridge. Over the course of six hours. It was amazing.”
The re-routing of the Trans-Canada Trail “is the kind of attraction that belongs on The Great Trail,” stressed Lavoie. “We are a true park in the sky with all the artwork and trees and everything else growing. We know they have a real interest in promoting this when we are done.”
THE ENDURING ALLURE OF JUMBO
More than 130 years after his tragic death in St. Thomas, is it fair to say the legend of Jumbo, the massive African bush elephant, may be growing in stature?
The superstar of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, whose life was cut short in a train accident on Sept. 15, 1885, was the subject of a David Suzuki investigation Jan. 7 last year on The Nature of Things.
And now, the larger-than-life pachyderm is to be immortalized on stage this summer – via an equally impressive puppet powered by a pair of individuals housed inside – as part of the Blyth Festival 2019 season.
This past Thursday (May 16) at the Elgin County Heritage Centre, a well-attended panel discussion delved into the back story of playwright Sean Dixon’s production and speculated on the elephant’s popularity that includes adoption of the word jumbo into everyday usage.
Joining Dixon on the panel were director Gil Garrett, set and costume designer Eric Bunnell and Gemma James-Smith, who constructed the life-sized Jumbo puppet.
We’ll have an extended recap of the fascinating discussion next week, however, to tease somewhat, here is a short excerpt from the almost 90-minute presentation.
The panellists were asked, why they think there is still so much interest in Jumbo. Here is a snippet of their responses.
Bunnell opened with the observation, “We have jumbo shrimp to jumbo jets and jumbo this, that and everything named after him to capture the world’s imagination.
“I think people tired of the monument (in the city’s west end) because it represented a bygone era. We were no longer a prosperous railroad town and that happens with small towns.”
Bunnell continued, “And then all of a sudden things change. We start thinking we should value this. It’s part of our story, it’s part of what makes us unique in St. Thomas.
“And then I started reading some of the ideas you’ve put in the play and, all of a sudden, Jumbo is this beautiful, large wonderful thing.”
“We’re in a time where we’re really exploring the notion of sentience in our fellow creature,” added Dixon. “The humanity of animals and the rights of animals.
“And it’s just recently that Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers circus finally decided to ban elephants altogether in their circuses.
“It’s an unfortunate story of someone making money off a creature, a person or a thing that can’t help themselves.”
Dixon continued with the following insight.
“You look at African elephants in the wild and they’ve got this big, broad faces and huge regal expressions . . . and you look at Jumbo and his face is kind of pinched and his eyes are shadowed and you can see the kind of pain in his face.
“But you see the gentleness in his relationship with (handler) Matthew Scott. That relationship is so complex and rife with mystery.”
Responding to the issue of St. Thomas and its uncomfortable relationship to its history, Garrett suggested “As Canadians, we have decided, for the most part, to not really teach our history to our children. We don’t really have a great relationship with our history.”
Garrett continued, “Our understanding of elephants has grown so much. The idea that elephants will actually return to the bones of their ancestors with consistency. And then go back to their lives.
“To me, that is not behaviour, that’s culture.”
“Part of it is the emotional life of those creatures,” add James-Smith. “It’s an unfortunate story of someone making money off a creature, a person or a thing that can’t help themselves.”
“And even after death, is exploited to make money. That is pretty universal and upsetting. It’s a haunted story, to me. It’s disturbing.”
An engaging back-and-forth dialogue which enthralled those in attendance and prompted numerous probing questions.
More in the coming days.
THE READER’S WRITE
In response to our item last week on a provincial pilot program to increase the maximum speed on three stretches of 400-series highways, including Highway 402 from London to Sarnia, reader Pat Ripley Thornton passed along her observation.
“I don’t like the 401 already. Another reason to avoid it. Travelled 401 near Tilbury the other day unavoidably. Carnage Alley is a well-deserved description.”
On the same topic, Mary Lynn Metras Tweeted her reaction in two words.
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