County unimpressed with shelter options, seeking task force input
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Huron County Council has taken a step back in its fight against homelessness, seeking more supportive housing options for the county and input from its homelessness task force before committing to a path forward.
Council discussed the issue at its Aug. 11 meeting, which was held virtually via Zoom. Director of Social and Property Services Barbara Hall presented several options to council at the meeting, including a modular/stick-built apartment building, tiny homes or trailer-type modular units, the purchase or renovation of an existing apartment building or the purchase or renovation of an existing motel.
In her report, Hall recommended the construction of a modular/stick-built apartment building as a solution, saying it would allow for the development of a high-quality space to deliver supportive services for those experiencing homelessness. There, support service agencies will have dedicated office space designed to safely engage with residents, she said in her report.
In addition, she said there would be a strong sense of community within the building, as residents would be able to meet for social activities in a common lounge, greet one another in the hallways and easily meet with support service workers without having to venture outdoors in the case of inclement weather.
She said the apartment building would also provide the opportunity for life skills stabilization activities in the common lounge area and allow for on-site security services. In addition, a new build could conform to the county’s guidelines in regards to being energy-efficient and accessible for all.
However, Hall said that securing land for the project could be a challenge, with very few parcels of land in the county currently zoned to accommodate high-density residential use.
In her report, Hall estimated that the building would cost $317 per square foot for a one-bedroom unit with an anticipated size of 609 square feet. However, the report was based on construction estimates from December of 2020 for a one-bedroom unit with a modular-type two-storey apartment building with 20 one-bedroom units.
Huron East Mayor Bernie MacLellan said he wasn’t in favour of Hall’s recommendation, saying that building a permanent structure sends the message that there will always be people in the apartments. That, he said, is at odds with council’s direction of trying to help those who are experiencing homelessness in the interim, while providing support to get them into jobs and homes of their own after a temporary stay.
Howick Reeve Doug Harding said he found the options presented in the report to be very different and that he always thought council was leaning towards temporary “tiny homes” or trailer units.
He also balked at the proposed size of the units, saying the county shouldn’t be endeavouring to “build the Taj Mahal”, adding that those living in the units shouldn’t get too comfortable in them, because then they’ll never want to leave.
Modular trailer-type units, Hall said in her report, would cost approximately $275 per square foot, consisting of 289 square feet of livable space. Additional costs, however, would be required for infrastructure connections like trenching hydro lines and water and sewer connections to reach municipal services.
Bluewater Mayor Paul Klopp was also against any form of supportive housing, saying the county should be lobbying the provincial and federal governments for support with homelessness in the community, rather than building housing with tax dollars that should be used to repair roads and bridges.
He suggested deferring the issue to the county’s homelessness task force for another set of eyes, more information and perhaps another recommendation.
Goderich Mayor John Grace, who has been sounding the alarm on homelessness in the county, specifically in his home community of Goderich, for over two years, went the other way on the report, saying council needed to act quickly because the problem is only going to get worse.
Residents are frustrated, he said, and he doesn’t blame them. Goderich Town Council is frustrated and municipal staff are overwhelmed. Simply put, Grace said, the town doesn’t have enough public works staff to keep up with the homelessness problem in the town and the department’s regular work is falling by the wayside as a result. He said the town doesn’t even have enough of a staffing complement to clean up the current homeless encampments.
He also sought to remind council that it was discussing people. He said they are Goderich residents and Huron County residents but, for the moment, they happen to be in Goderich.
Grace also wondered aloud if the issue would drag on and begin to bleed into next year, which would be a municipal election year, which would mean further inaction from the county on an issue that was going to get worse before it gets better.
Council then voted to send the report to the homelessness task force, requesting more information on options going forward before the issue returns to Huron County Council.