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  • Writer's pictureESSEX FREE PRESS

County Council questions HHAC on County homelessness data

by Sylene Argent

Members of Essex County Council had the opportunity to question the Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee (HHAC) after its representatives presented its 2021 Annual Report during the regular meeting last Wednesday evening.

  Jen Tanner, Manager of Homelessness and Housing Support, explained the Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee is a regional committee that advises on the community’s ten-year housing and homelessness plan, and helps guide some of the actions taken.  

  Some of the highlights she shared during the meeting included that Canada Ontario Housing Benefit was successfully implemented in Windsor and Essex County, with the average monthly benefit being $308 per household. In total, 267 households were assisted, of which 15 percent were County residents and the remainder were City residents, with a small handful from other communities.

  The rent supplement mitigation strategy is something its Administration is working actively on. There are a number of programs that provide rent supplements to individuals and they have expiration dates. The Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee has plans in place to seek out other sources of funding or mitigate the impacts those expirations will have on individuals.

  The Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee is legislatively required to implement changes to the rent-geared-to-income calculations, and those changes were implemented in July of 2021.

  In March of last year, the Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee also conducted a homeless point in time count, which resulted in the identification of 251 people experiencing homelessness in Windsor and Essex County. Over the years the count has taken place, the number of homeless identified has been consistent, Tanner said.

  “We also have other data that we rely on in terms of making decisions related to investments in housing and homelessness,” Tanner said.

  The Information Management system the committee uses, called the “Homeless Individuals and Families Information System” is well underway. There are 283 pre-users now trained on the system, and all emergency shelters in the region use it, in addition to other service providers, she said.

  The goal, Tanner said, is that all 40 agencies that participate in the “By Names List” will be included with the system, which will provide the Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee with case files for each individual who interacts with the homelessness system for timely data to drive decisions.

  New capital funding has come to the community, resulting in the addition of around 99 new supportive and/or affordable housing units. Upon questioning from Lakeshore’s Deputy Mayor Tracey Bailey, Kirk Whittal, Executive Director of Housing and Children’s Services, noted just twelve of those units were located in the County.   

  “The provincial and federal levels of governments have recognized the vulnerability of people throughout the pandemic, people experiencing homelessness, and these capital investments are intended to help to provide safety and securing for more individuals in our region,” Tanner commented.

  County Warden Gary McNamara noted federal Reaching Home Funding indicates an allocation for 2023 and 2024, and asked if it would be the Community Advisory Board (CAB) to decide on what initiatives are funded from those dollars, and if the rep from HHAC could provide some information about CAB and its role in making decisions on federal funding.

  In regards to federal homeless dollars, Kelly Goz, Co-ordinator, Housing Administration and Development, said there has to be recognition that community entities are not necessarily municipalities throughout Canada, but can include municipalities to United Ways to local non-profit organizations. The role of the CAB was something required though the federal government back to the creation of federal homeless dollars in 1999. Its role is to assist in setting the direction for addressing homelessness in a region and provides recommendations with regards to requests for proposals, procurement policies, or recommending projects.

  In addition, CAB is meant to ensure projects are aligned with Reaching Home requirements and the direction County and City Councils have set in the ten-year Homelessness and Housing Master Plan that was approved in December of 2019.    

  They also seek opportunities to deepen understanding and awareness of community issues and activities that will impact homelessness and at risk of homelessness populations, while leveraging Reaching Home dollars with other available community funding. There is a contractual obligation, under the federal homeless dollars, to match it dollar-for-dollar, by other regional funding, such as municipal, provincial, or private sources.

  The CAB did meet, Goz said, and some of the allocations were discussed for 2022/23, as well as those that would be carried forward to the next year.

  McNamara said sometimes, from the County’s perspective, it is hard to put a handle on how the number reflects homelessness in certain parts of the region. If individuals are heading into Windsor, it adds to the City’s numbers and they may not necessarily be reflected in a model.

  “We certainly see, in certain parts of the region, where homelessness is an issue,” McNamara said. He asked how the County will be able to bring in some of the funding to expand opportunities to reduce homelessness in the County.

  Goz said homelessness dollars go where the data goes. In the past, they have presented to County Council the importance of County stakeholders in referring folks onto the “By Name List.” All homelessness dollars that come to the City of Windsor – as either the service manager or community entity, are regional. She said HHAC does fund programs that are regionally-based to address homelessness in the county.

  “Unfortunately, our funding envelopes are never fully sufficient to address all of the needs, and we are fully reliant upon marrying different levels of government funding together, to ensure the comprehensiveness that is needed to address all homelessness that is in our community,” Goz said.

  It is known there are 479 households that are experiencing homelessness throughout the City of Windsor and the County of Essex. She said 95 percent are in the City of Windsor. “But all of the programs we have funded to date are regional in nature and we always want to ensure that the County is well represented and the data used to support those decisions is also representative of the depth of the concerns with regards to homelessness in the community,” Goz said.

  With inflation rates and cost of living, there is a tremendous amount of pressure, and there are many in the region at the breaking point in the county, and that is a concern for those who represent them on County Council, McNamara said.

  Kingsville Councillor Tony Gaffan noted he is reading mental health issues and addictions are nearly 50 percent of the issue. What is happening in the County, he said, is that County residents in need have to leave and go to Windsor. They want to be home.

  He suggested offering affordable, subsidized, and regular housing together, to ensure these individuals in need feel like they are being given a helping hand, not a hand out to build their mental health up. “We are not looking at the deep problem. We are just giving them a Band-Aid to try and get them through,” Gaffan said.

  Goz agreed there needs to be more mental health and addiction resources in the community to get to the root problem of homelessness.

  Local municipalities and the County need to be made aware, as quickly as possible, when funding opportunities are made available, McNamara said.

  McNamara believes getting folks into a room to start strategizing will go a long way in helping a true-regional approach to affordable housing.

  He asked for a better reporting of the homelessness date for the County, in addition to more detailed breakdowns of where the housing and homelessness funding is being spent, regardless if it is federal or provincial dollars.

  In speaking honestly, the County sometimes does not feel like a partner, McNamara said, it often feels more like a client informed of decisions made, long after they have been made.

  The regional housing and homelessness plan needs to be updated every five-years, Tanner noted. In 2023, consultation and engagement will begin to renew the plan, and it will be a good opportunity to get in strategies and goals that will address the needs in the County. The CAB is another way that looks at how to allocate funding.

  There are 40 agencies currently participating in the “By Name List” process, with representation from the County and City. Each time one agency interacts with someone who is experiencing homelessness, they refer that person to that list, and those individuals go through a vulnerability assessment. The list is priority-based.

  There are monthly reports published online with the data on homelessness and successes of housing. In June, 81 individuals were helped to find housing though the By Names process, Tanner said.

  “We value the County’s input and want to ensure its needs are being met through the limited funding available,” Tanner added.    

  “Those of us who have never found housing, homelessness, housing affordability to be in their jurisdiction, we are going to start taking it on,” Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said, adding churches and other faith organizations will take this on as well. “I think what is going to happen is, as this rolls out, there will be clamoring to the province from smaller regions like ourself for a share of the pot. And, when that happens, I am going to suggest to you, your pot is going to get smaller. The need in our community is great. I see the numbers, and quite frankly, I think they are underestimated.”

  She continued, “If we don’t start seeing some more funding coming to the municipalities, to the towns in our community, I will say to you, we will find our own solutions, but we will start being, very, very loud to the upper levels and we will be clamouring for some money for ourselves,” MacDonald said.

  She suggested that perhaps now is the time to be more collaborative than what has been experienced in the past. She said there is homelessness all over the county. Leamington, she added, has the lowest annual income.

  “Either we fix it together, or we will fix it by ourselves,” MacDonald said. “That is just a caution, but I think that is what will happen in the next five-years.”

  Whittal said the funding envelope does not meet the needs for the region.

       What is needed, McNamara said, is everyone in it together. The County of Essex represents around 200,000 people. “I think what we are saying is that the only way we are going to solve this is by doing it together. And, I think that is important not to forget.”

  Essex Mayor Richard Meloche spoke to the “By Names list.” He pointed out that in February 2022, there were 472 households experiencing homelessness in the region, of which it was noted only 35 households were in Essex County.

  “Basically, the population is pretty close, we are almost at a 50/50,” Meloche said, comparing County and City populations and similar socio-economic statuses. Referring to the County only having 7.4 percent of the homeliness, he said, “I can’t imagine that someone would look at this number and say that there is not something at fault with that number.”  

  He believes someone could look at that number and conclude there must be a fault with the way homelessness is being measured or how the information is being given back.

  Goz said various data collection methods have been used since 2016. The inaugural way was point in time counts, which helped lead into the creation of the “By Names Prioritization List.” Since 2018, that percentage split has been pretty consistent, she said.

  For the last four-years, she said the HHAC has been working to increase participation from County stakeholders and church groups on referring and getting folks to speak to outreach workers or support agencies currently working on the “By Names List,” so that the data could improve over time. Four years later, however, she said the percentage split is consistent.

  She said there are those who do not want to give the data to the City. The dialogue has to be changed. She said it is known homelessness is quite high in the County because of the regional geography and because folks do not want to move into the City of Windsor. These are folks who need to be put on the list, so their voices can be heard.  

  Meloche spoke of six individuals he knew of last year who lost their residences in Essex and was certain they were not accounted for on the “By Name List” because they were staying with family. He said perhaps that is where the system is broken, because he does not see a way to get them on that list.

  Goz said they could be referred though outreach workers.

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