County dedicates homelessness funds for the next year
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Huron County Council has authorized the spending of over $550,000 to tackle the county’s homelessness problem over the course of the winter and into next summer. The proposal includes hiring a number of full-time professionals and establishing a shelter in Huron County.
Council discussed the issue at its Sept. 16 meeting. This comes after months of discussion surrounding rising numbers in the homeless population in communities like Goderich, Wingham and Exeter. The situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and weeks of many public buildings and restaurants being closed due to the rapid spread of the virus.
Goderich Mayor John Grace, for one, called the issue urgent, telling council the town needed help immediately. South Huron Mayor George Finch had also identified the issue early as one of concern, speaking about it over a year ago.
As a result, council struck a homelessness task force earlier this year, bringing together councillors with representatives of a number of agencies, including Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson’s office, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Choices for Change (addiction counselling centre), inpatient mental health and community psychiatry services, the Huron Women’s Shelter, Huron Perth Public Health, the United Way Perth-Huron, Huron Turning Point Residence, Libro Credit Union and the Ontario Provincial Police in addition to Warden Jim Ginn, Chief Administrative Officer Meighan Wark and four councillors.
The task force has now met a number of times and Housing Services Manager Christine Hoffman presented its short-term recommendations to council at its Sept. 16 meeting.
First, the county will hire a shelter co-ordinator, who will be supported by 6.5 new full-time positions. The co-ordinator will be hired by the county, while the support staff will be hired by the Canadian Mental Health Association and Choices for Change.
Hoffman reiterated the importance of hiring seasoned professionals in these roles, saying experience and knowledge in the field will be crucial to the success of the program. Ginn agreed, saying that hiring the correct people is really at the centre of the program.
“The most expensive [aspect of the program] is staff, but that is key to solving many of the long-term issues,” Ginn said. “Professional staff is key to this initiative.”
Second will be the establishment of a new shelter in Huron County. While a location has been identified by staff, it has not yet been disclosed to the public.
The shelter would remain open until the spring or summer of 2021. However, some of the employees would stay on throughout the summer, working on outreach and programming aimed at the homeless population.
There are also a number of other costs pertaining to the program like utilities, security, laundry, cleaning, hygiene/showering, transportation and food.
In her report, Hoffman said the goal is to wind down the Goderich hotel rental due to how expensive it is. While the programs would run concurrently, the plan would be to phase out the hotel project and direct users to the shelter. However, Ginn did remind councillors that this initiative is still short-term in itself. It’s designed to run for a year or two with the goal of finding permanent, stable housing for the population. Whether that’s a newly-constructed building or subsidized housing throughout the county, the goal is to help people experiencing homelessness to be in their own homes or apartments sooner, rather than later.
Grace agreed, calling the program a good, temporary solution that will help many people until they can live on their own.
“This is just a Band-Aid. It’s a good Band-Aid, but it’s a Band-Aid. We have to look beyond it,” Grace said, adding that those experiencing homelessness didn’t choose that way of life for themselves and often their situations are tied to tragic circumstances that couldn’t be helped.
Ginn said there may be grant money available in the near future, whether it be from the federal or provincial government, that may assist the county in battling homelessness, but he wasn’t yet sure.
Because the Out of the Cold program wouldn’t be running this year, the county needed a solution, especially in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Hoffman’s budget came to a total cost of $552,920 to roll out the program for the coming year, though there were several lines in the budget that remained unconfirmed, so they could affect the budget slightly in the coming weeks and months.
Grace added that while the program will be more expensive than he anticipated, he feels it’s the best response Huron County can make, given the circumstances.
“This approach is the right one,” Grace said, reiterating the importance of hiring professional staff members to properly roll out the program.
Huron East Mayor Bernie MacLellan said that while he’s usually watching the dollars and cents of programs being administered by the county, in this case he thought it took a backseat to the social responsibility of the county to protect all of its people.