Aaron Ranta wasn’t expecting to sleep outdoors this summer, but when he recently lost his apartment in Thunder Bay, Ontario, he had no choice.
He has been staying in a tent for about three weeks and is actively looking for a new place to live. She has met many other people in similar situations and has spent much of her time helping them, handing out bottles of water and keeping the area clean.
“Most people are half a step away from being here,” he said. “I would like people to try [us] as if we were normal people. We are normal people. Nobody wants to be here.”
Community workers in the northwestern Ontario town know that more people are sleeping outdoors than ever before: 140 at the end of July compared to a high of 55 last year.
Last year, organizations like Elevate NWO helped 100 people get into housing. But this year, there has been little to no movement to get people inside because there just aren’t enough units available.
“I’m really worried about what this winter could bring, given the current numbers we’re sitting on,” said Cynthia Olsen, the city’s director of strategic initiatives and engagement.
Housing is a human right
Extension workers have focused their efforts on meeting people where they are. This strategy was further consolidated in April, when the council voted to the city adopting a human rights-based approach to the camps.
This is in contrast to efforts elsewhere, such as in the Waterloo region, to remove encampments from public spaces. That attempt was rebuffed by a ruling by the Ontario Superior Court, which said that the municipality could not delete camps if you could not provide enough shelter beds to meet the demand.
“Any time you disperse someone from a location, you risk losing them to the system or losing them to tracking, and then you have to start that process all over again,” Olsen said.
“Hearing more about a human rights-based approach was simply recognizing that people have a right to housing. It’s a fundamental right under the Canadian Charter of Human Rights.”
The Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board (TBDSSAB) is the community service provider in charge of managing social housing.
At the end of june:
- 1,217 people were on the waiting list for community housing.
- 56 people were on the high-need homeless waiting list, meaning they are given priority for housing.
From January through the end of June, TBDSSAB removed 21 people from the high needs homeless waiting list. In that same period, community workers directly helped 39 people access housing, though there may be an overlap of the same people represented in both numbers, said Ken Ranta, director of integrated social services for TBDSSAB.
“It’s certainly not as simple as saying, ‘Let’s build a big apartment building and give everyone a place to stay,’ because a lot of them need a level of support that allows them to succeed in that family environment, and that’s where I would suggest a whole community approach,” he said.
Feeling of security, community in the camps.
What’s new about the homelessness facing the city isn’t people sleeping outside, but staying in more open spaces, Ken Ranta said.
“It’s much more visible now and part of that is because of … the feeling of safety, community, security, the opportunity for various people to feel part of a community.”
Being more visible also means it’s easier for people to access support. Many non-homeless people come to visit the camps to access the resources of community workers because they know it is a safe space for them, she explained.
However, Aaron Ranta said that sometimes people who do not live in the camps come and cause problems, creating tensions. There is also the problem of the stigma surrounding homelessness, which follows them wherever they are.
A smile goes a long way, and most people just want to talk to someone.– Aaron Ranta, a homeless person in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
“There is shame in most things. If I go to ask for help, you feel ashamed,” he said. “I see [people] all the time begging… you can see that look on his face, it’s just defeat.
“A smile goes a long way and most people just want to talk to someone,” Aaron said.
Michelle Wojciechowski, TBDSSAB intake and eligibility manager, oversees the team of transitional outreach workers that works with the city’s homeless population.
She said a big part of her success has been building relationships with people and meeting them where they feel comfortable.
“Knowing that they’re looking out for their best interests and that they’re going to support them, and how much more successful that is once they’ve completed building that relationship, continuing that level of support is critical.”
Strained City Resources
Mayor Ken Boshcoff has visited several camps this summer. He has noticed that many people are experiencing health problems, but there is a sense of community among the people who live there.
Thunder Bay has always been a service center for much more than its permanent residents, he said. While Statistics Canada reports the city’s population as approximately 120,000, some provincial ministers estimate the population served to be between 140,000 and 150,000.
“We know that our service agencies, from the hospital to the addiction ward, are really overloaded,” Boshcoff said.
This makes it difficult to address homelessness in any substantive way, so the city is pushing for more resources from higher levels of government to ease the burden on service providers at the local level, the mayor said.
“I think we’ve really hit a wall in terms of capacity, which reflects that we need federal help on the indigenous side, and we need more capacity for health and addiction support on the provincial side.
“We’ve really reached what I would call a near breaking point.”
‘Everyone has a story’
With the arrival of winter, that wall is closing fast. Outreach workers from different agencies meet regularly to discuss the situation as it evolves and ensure there are no gaps in services. But TBDSSAB’s Ken Ranta said the whole community needs to be involved.
“The only way to truly fully address the needs of the homeless population is to have a whole-of-community approach. There must not only be a willingness to participate from all types of service providers, but almost a mandate,” he said. . “It almost has to call for input from all sectors if we’re going to make it a really meaningful solution to a homelessness crisis.”
Aaron Ranta just wants Thunder Bay to remember that those who sleep in tents are having a hard time.
“Don’t judge them, don’t look down on them. Just realize they’re people too,” she said. “Everyone has a story… so no matter who you are, don’t think you’re better or worse than anyone else.”