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27% jump in homelessness prompts committee call for more mental health, addiction supports

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Homelessness has jumped 27 per cent in the last three years, according to results from point-in-time survey whose concerning results prompted a city committee Wednesday to call for the province and feds to “wake up and see this for what it is.”

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What it is, city councillors said Wednesday, is a national crisis arising from a lack of adequate support for housing, mental health and addictions.

“Until we actually flow the proper levels of money for mental health and addictions into this community we will have this problem ongoing forever,” Ward 3 Coun. Rino Bortolin said during a meeting of the Community Services and Parks Standing Committee as it discussed the 2021 point-in-time report.

It’s not that we need money for a different program, what we need is more money

On any given night, it says, 251 are homeless people in Windsor-Essex, a 27 per cent increase from the last time the survey was done in 2018 and a 25 per cent increase from 2016. The report also notes that the city’s running tally of homeless people called the By-Name Priority List, showed 476 people had experienced homelessness in the 90 days around when the just-in-time survey was done in March. The report acknowledges the priority list of 476 homeless people is a better reflection of the true number because it provides more opportunities to find them, and takes into account the “hidden homeless” who are couch-surfing in friends’ apartments, or in and out of hospital or jails.

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A man sleeps in a park near City Hall Square on Thursday, March 11, 2021.
A man sleeps in a park near City Hall Square on Thursday, March 11, 2021. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Bortolin, whose ward includes downtown which is Ground Zero for homelessness, said when he first ran for council in 2014, these issues were non-existent. But there has since been an explosion of issues related to mental health and addiction, followed by the scarcity and rising cost of housing. The report says that two-thirds of single adults and youths surveyed reported mental health conditions and two-thirds of single adults reported substance use challenges.

Fifty-six per cent of those surveyed reported being treated at the hospital emergency in the last six months and 32 per cent reported staying in the hospital at least once. The average hospital stay costs taxpayers $5,642, translating to a $524,706 cost over six months, the report says. It also says that 42 per cent had interactions with police and 20 per cent went to jail in the last six months.

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“We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars, on health-care costs reacting to these issues,” Bortolin said. “We spend millions, if not tens of millions, responding as a policing issue. All of these things land on the shoulders of this community and we don’t actually deal with the issue properly.”

He said when health-care delivery is threatened, such as when provincial officials wanted to move  thoracic cancer surgery to London several years ago, the community reacts with vehement protests. Yet when there’s a months-long wait for addiction treatment, the rallying cry is absent.

“Those are provincial issues, health issues, health ministry issues, and money needs to flow from that level of government.”

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People rest on the first floor of the former Windsor Public Library main branch building on Ouellette Avenue which was being used as a temporary homeless shelter in February.
People rest on the first floor of the former Windsor Public Library main branch building on Ouellette Avenue which was being used as a temporary homeless shelter in February. Photo by Nick Bracaccio /Windsor Star

Ward 6 Coun. Jo-Anne Gignac said the report spells out how many people who are homeless need highly intensive support.

“I mean, what does that tell us? These are people with significant mental health issues and these are health issues. We need health funding and support for this.”

The motion from the committee, which still needs council’s endorsement, calls on the province and feds to recognize homelessness as a national and provincial crisis and acknowledge that the lack of money for addiction and mental health programs is a leading cause.

Chronic homelessness, defined as being homeless for at least six of the last 12 months, is also on the rise — from 50 per cent of single males in 2018 to 75 per cent in 2021. Twenty-six per cent of single males said they’d been homeless every month of the last three years and on average it has been 26 months since single adults have had a permanent home.

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Windsor’s Commissioner of Health and Human Services Jelena Payne told the committee that temporary funding from the feds and province really helped support programs for homeless people during the pandemic. But now that money is drying up.

Meanwhile, there are more and more evictions and the point-in-time survey shows homelessness is on the rise, she said.

“It’s not that we need money for a different program, what we need is more money.”

The survey also counters claims that the rise in numbers locally is due to people from other areas moving here for better services. Half the people said they’ve lived here for 20 years or longer. Nine per cent said they’d been here for less than a year.

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“We find typically you don’t have an individual who’s currently in a shelter in Hamilton or Ottawa pack up and say ‘I’m going to go stay in the shelter system in Windsor,’” said Payne. What usually happens is people come here for a program, are incarcerated in the South West Detention Centre, or move here to stay with family. Then there’s a family breakdown and the person is homeless.

The report also shows a very high level of homelessness among indigenous people. Twenty-two per cent identified as indigenous, while indigenous people make up only 1.4 per cent of the local population, according to the report.

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