Homelessness is not a housing issue. It goes far beyond that.
Tents are no place for the homeless in winter.
Everyone should be able to agree on that simple declaration.
Just as obviously, winter has come early and dozens of people in Peterborough are living in tents.
They are camping in parks, gathered next to the city’s bare-bones overflow shelter and in patches of out-of-the way woods and trails.
They need somewhere warmer and safer to sleep.
Those are the easy parts of the equation. There is a problem that needs to be fixed, quickly.
It’s the fixing, as always, that’s complicated.
Homelessness is not the result of any single issue. People are not homeless because the economy is lagging, or because Canada hasn’t been able to develop a new-technology sector that provides the jobs of the future.
A majority of the homeless suffer from mental health issues and addictions. They don’t need jobs, they need treatment and counselling.
For many, particularly those with serious mental health issues, a job will never be the answer. They need permanent support, which means a place to live with staff to see that they are fed and cared for at the level they require.
Others will be capable of supporting themselves with help — some form of assisted housing and supplements to the income they are able to earn.
For those who can get back to what is considered the norm in society — full-time employment and independent living — short-term assisted housing, training programs, addiction counselling are all in the mix of what is required to help them reach that goal.
None of that is new insight. Across Peterborough, and across the country, those services exist but not at the level required. Funding is like patchwork and insufficient.
The result is that the success stories of people being helped out of homelessness permanently are too few and the crises of those facing an unsheltered winter they might not survive are too many.
Right now, Peterborough needs to take care of the immediate need. It could use help from the provincial and federal governments, but if that help doesn’t come in the next week or so — which is highly unlikely — the city has to act.
In October is seemed a short-term, rest-of-the-winter solution was possible. The city promised $200,000 to fund a low-barrier overnight shelter in the former Trinity United Church.
That offer was withdrawn. Whether that was due to a misunderstanding of provincial restraints on municipal spending during an election period and city council changeover, as city bureaucrats explained, or a lack of commitment to help, as some social agencies and housing advocates maintain, no new shelter space was added.
That debate took place during an unusually mild mid-October. A month later overnight temperatures are sub-zero and real winter is approaching. The quick but far from perfect solution of warm sleeping space with little else to recommend it is now a minimum necessity and the money needs to be found.
Better still would be a more significant commitment to provide better staffing and supports. Emergency shelter is not new to Peterborough and has not always worked well when made available. People are understandably reluctant stay in a space where they don’t feel safe and are under restrictions they simply can’t follow.
Homelessness is not a housing issue. Peterborough is dealing with a health care and public safety emergency. The city shouldn’t have to solve it, but no one else is going to.