In November of last year, Danielle Neilson reminded city council that the solution to homelessness is housing and housing with supports.
Neilson is the city’s Homelessness Prevention and Housing Programs Coordinator and at that meeting of council, she presented a thorough overview of the homeless situation in St. Thomas, including an analysis of unsheltered homelessness.
She observed, “. . . this is not only the result of increased demands on our emergency shelter beds, some of my firsthand experiences with people living unsheltered in St. Thomas revealed other factors as well.
“Such as needing lower barrier supports that are matched more appropriately to someone’s mental health or addiction challenges that may result in unpredictable behaviours.
“Having personal belongings or accumulating personal belongings at a rate that exceeds the shelter’s ability to store them.
“Having a complete desire to live unsheltered, even when housing options are available.
The Inn, the city’s emergency shelter which opened back in January, has a new executive director. Brian Elliot, who came on board last month, was employed in the same role previously with Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario. He replaces interim executive director Pastor Cherisse Swarath. In an interview with Elliot this week, we asked what is it about the emergency shelter and St. Thomas that attracted him to the position. “I’ve been involved with non-profits, one way or another, my entire life and so I really saw The Inn as a place in St. Thomas that had been very progressive in trying to find longer-term solutions to the homeless situation.” To minimize the number of homeless individuals in St. Thomas and Elgin, Elliot stresses the need to work with community partners. “Habitat was all about families and, in some cases, individuals and helping them succeed. And The Inn is no different. We’re working with individuals and we’re finding the right supports and the right solutions to allow them to be more successful in their lives. “I think there are a lot of similarities.”
It was a critical talking point throughout this year’s municipal election campaign.
But homelessness and, in particular, its impact on the downtown core has been a front-burner issue now for several years.
To kick off the city council meeting this past Monday (Nov. 7) Danielle Neilson, the city’s Homelessness Prevention and Housing Programs Coordinator initiated a deep dive into the lives of homeless individuals in St. Thomas and Elgin.
Her presentation and subsequent Q & A consumed a good 30 minutes.
She kicked off her information session with a reminder, “I would like to start by acknowledging that the complexity, humanity and tragedy of the impact of homelessness on people’s lives in St. Thomas are no different from what people are experiencing across all of Canada today.”
She continued, “Experiences of homelessness today are the result of deep, historic, system-level errors that have accumulated over decades.
“Such as colonialism and divestments in affordable housing. These combined with other social inequities such as deep poverty, unresolved inter-generational trauma, an inflated and unaffordable housing market, the current cost of living crisis, the impacts of the pandemic – and these are just to name a few – have cumulatively increased housing instability, including occurrences of homelessness at a higher rate than we have ever seen historically before.
It’s a re-match of the 2018 mayoral campaign in St. Thomas, only this time around Heather Jackson is not the incumbent.
She filed her nomination papers on Aug. 19, the final day to do so, joining newcomer Gregg McCart in what became a last-minute three-horse race with Joe Preston seeking the nod for a second term.
Looking back at the 2018 race, Preston prevailed by 542 votes, quashing Jackon’s bid at a third term as mayor.
It’s not as if Jackson stepped away from the political spotlight, however.
She was the Liberal candidate for Elgin-Middlesex-London in this year’s June provincial election, finishing third to Conservative Rob Flack and the NDPs Andy Kroeker.
She polled 7,615 votes, almost double the number garnered by Liberal candidate Carlie Forsythe in the 2018 provincial vote.
She stresses you have to go for it. Even if that means initiating your charge four years ahead of schedule.
Tara McCaulley had hoped to enter municipal politics in 2026, but now she is seeking a seat on city council in the Oct. 24 municipal vote.
McCaulley feels her experience gained over the past 10 years with the Small Business Enterprise Centre and the St. Thomas Economic Development Corporation can be put to good use as the city deals with a variety of challenges.
That’s in addition to her experience dealing with all three levels of government.
“I feel this is a good time,” advises McCaulley. “There are lots of exciting things happening in our community and also some challenges.
She stresses the need for affordable housing is a critical priority along with the health of the downtown core and preparing for future growth.
He’s the owner of DeNeire’s Gallery of Fine Art in downtown St. Thomas and now Shawn DeNeire is plunging into the fine art of municipal politics.
As of yesterday (Aug. 12), NeNeire was one of 10 individuals seeking to fill eight councillor seats at city hall.
DeNeire was born and raised in St. Thomas and was a Central Elgin Collegiate grad although he also spent time at Arthur Voaden Secondary School and Parkside Collegiate Institute.
Ask why he is eager to sit around the horseshoe in the council chamber and DeNeire will relay the following observation.
“I’ve talked to several businesses on Talbot Street and they haven’t had one council person come down in the last four years and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? I’m so and so and have you got any concerns?’
“Not one. And that bothers me. Who are we being paid by? The taxpayers.
“Who should be in our best interest? The taxpayers.”
I am sure there are members of council who will challenge the above and they have been seen patronizing downtown establishments.
“I think it’s very important that we keep in mind that the solution to homelessness is not an emergency shelter. “The solution to homelessness is housing and housing with supports.” That was the salient takeaway from the lengthy discussion at the July 11 council meeting revolving around The Inn, the city’s emergency shelter. The observation, which pivoted the dialogue back on track to long-term solutions instead of short-term fixes, was put forward by Danielle Neilson, the city’s homelessness and housing supervisor. She followed that with, “And, in our community, we have plans, not only in place or being considered, but actions that are working. “And, we have lots to be proud of in St. Thomas.” Proof of that was evident in a media release issued July 8 by Built For Zero, a program of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.
It has been a significant week for housing news in St. Thomas.
A pair of announcements mid-week covered off a broad swath of the residential spectrum.
At Wednesday’s site plan control committee meeting, conditional approval was granted to Fast Forward Ventures of London for their 14-storey, 162-unit apartment building to rise on the south end of the former Timken Canada property near the intersection of First Avenue and Talbot Street.
The Timken plant closed in 2013 and was demolished and the site cleared in 2017.
The next day, the province announced $3 million in funding to develop 20 supportive housing units inside Phase 2 of the city’s social services and housing hub now under construction at 16 Queen Street.
Let’s take a closer look at both developments – which Mayor Joe Preston described as “one more step in attacking the city’s housing shortage.”
There is a 29-year-old St. Thomas resident who has been arrested 29 times since 2019, with 77 Criminal Code charges, 34 of those related to property crime, six related to trespassing, four drug-related charges and 39 fail-to-comply charges.
Twenty-six of those were withdrawn. And overall, 45 charges were withdrawn.
St. Thomas Police have checked on this individual’s well-being 19 times, including for overdoses and that person was reported to police 63 times as an unwanted or suspicious person because that person experienced homelessness or still does.
As they say on television crime dramas, those are the facts.
However, this is a real-life situation and not drawn from a reality show.
And it’s the type of ongoing police interaction that has St. Thomas Police Chief Chris Herridge calling for a two-stream justice system.