Some do not believe there are people in Orillia who are homeless, living, essentially, on our streets and tucked away on the fringes of our trails and neighbourhoods.
Those, locally, who help the homeless and support their needs know otherwise.
But there’s only one way to quantify the issue and to develop statistics about the actual number of people living without a roof over their heads - walk among them and count them.
That was the goal of the first federally and provincially mandated enumeration of homeless people that occurred throughout the land last April.
In Orillia and area, that meant a team of local volunteers and service providers heading out to area “hotspots”, visiting shelters and determining - at least for that day - how many people in the community do not have shelter.
What they determined was that in Orillia and area, on April 26, there were 97 people homeless. Across Simcoe County that day, there were 697 people “experiencing homelessness.” That works out to 14 people out of every 1,000 people in our region.
And officials in Orillia believe the numbers - at least in the Sunshine City - are lower than reality.
“We are concerned with that number,” Joyce Ward, the enumeration lead for the Orillia and area count, told city councillors this week as she and other members of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness (SCATEH) presented findings from the study.
“SCATEH doesn’t think that number is truly indicative of the extent of homelessness in our city or the surrounding townships,” said Ward.
The reason she believes that is because the date of the 24-hour count was cold and rainy.
Coun. Pat Hehn, who participated in the enumeration with fellow councillor Tim Lauer and the team of volunteers, said the weather played a factor.
“We saw lots of evidence” of people experiencing homelessness. However, due to the weather, they were not “out and about” that day and could not be counted, Hehn lamented.
Ward agreed the timing was less than ideal, but organizers were given a tight window to conduct the count as federal officials required the nation-wide count to be completed over a set period of time.
Despite that, the numbers help pinpoint the key issues and create new benchmarks, said Ward, who presented the findings alongside Linda Goodall, chair of the Orillia chapter of SCATEH (she is also the executive director of The Lighthouse), and Carrie Nixon, a housing first specialist with Empower Simcoe.
Ward said the enumeration and related surveys confirmed that “access to affordable housing is the No. 1 problem facing our communities.”
As she took city councillors through some startling statistics, she said “the importance of this data cannot be overstated.”
She said most of the homeless surveyed did have a temporary roof over their head, but 82 people, or 12%, did not.
Across Simcoe County, the top four reasons cited by respondents for becoming homeless were:
- Addiction/substance use 21%
- Inability to pay rent/ mortgage 20%
- Conflict with spouse/ partner 16%
- Unsafe housing conditions 15%
However, in Orillia, Ward noted the top two reasons were an inability to pay rent/mortgage and unsafe housing conditions.
That shows “the issues we have in the housing sector that we have to continue to tackle in Orillia.”
Ward noted one-third of survey participants were newly homeless, and noted for many, homelessness is not a long-term or recurring issue. However, about half of those surveyed were “chronically” homeless; of those many cited physical health, mental health or addiction issues.
“This really points to the need for more support services for the homeless in our communities,” said Ward.
The survey also revealed a deep disconnect around the integration of people back into the community. Ward said 28% of respondents reported having nowhere to live upon leaving a hospital or correctional facility.
“The province and the County (have) identified this as a priority” to tackle, noted Ward.
The enumeration indicated youth “are an especially vulnerable and fast growing group of those experiencing homelessness,” Ward reported. “This is a priority for the County moving forward.”
Ward also noted Indigenous people made up a large number of the homeless population relative to their percentage in the community. About 4% of the region’s population is Indigneous but almost 30% of those experiencing homelessness were Indigenous.
“Most people experiencing homelessness were single adults,” Ward revealed.
She also revealed that one-quarter of people using shelters fled spousal/partner abuse - often with children.
The enumeration also revealed “the shockingly high and costly use of emergency services among the homeless,” said Ward.
She said over half of those surveyed had used emergency health-care services in the past six months.
So now what?
“The purpose of this evidence-based research is to inform both county wide and local planning and funding efforts to combat homelessness,” said Goodall.
Nixon said the county is one of just 11 municipalities, to date, that has joined Built for Zero.
“Built for Zero is an ambitious national change effort helping a core group of leading communities end chronic homelessness - a first step on the path to eliminating all homelessness in Canada,” Nixon explained.
“Our goal in Simcoe County is to reach ‘Functional Zero’ by December 31, 2024, by transforming the system and creating the shortest path from homelessness to housed,” said Nixon.
“Homelessness will still occur, but episodes will be infrequent, brief and non-recurring,” Nixon added, noting key drivers of this include community awareness, system capacity, good data, increased housing stock, coordinated access, prevention and diversion and system advocacy.
Goodall outlined the group’s next steps, which included educating city councils and decision makers, increasing housing options for people experiencing homelessness and “increasing primary care, mental health and addiction services, and other supports for street involved and vulnerable populations.”
They also asked city council to renew their commitment to champion affordable housing and a housing-first philosophy.
Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke said the report was an “eye-opener” and stressed the data would be considered when “we’re doing our strategic plan.”