The clock is ticking for the end of the government-funded hotel program that has housed hundreds of homeless people in the community.
The hotel shelter program concludes later this month and the situation is expected to become more dire.
The hotel shelter system, which has housed many homeless people for the past several months, ends June 30.
The system was set up to help distance people during the COVID-19 pandemic while also keeping them safe and sheltered.
With an end coming to the hotel program, that will push approximately 175 people out the doors and onto the streets.
That worries at least one woman living in Milligan’s Pond who BarrieToday spoke with on Monday. While she wanted to remain anonymous, she said she knows people in the hotel system who are scared to leave it.
“They don’t know what lies ahead. They’re scared to be out here again and, frankly, those of us out here don’t know where they’re going to put all those people,” she said. “I’m really nervous about how we’ll be treated when there are way more of us outside and it’s completely impossible to hide it. If you’re rich and well-off and uncomfortable now, wait until mid-July.”
She said the person who died did not normally live in that area, and while she didn’t want to speak much about that incident, there is concern about the hotel funding coming to an end.
“We get pushed out of the way, out of sight, already, so we move further back into the bush. Someone complains and the cops come and kick us out, tell us to leave. So, then we hang out and live where we’re seen and people that make decisions on council don’t like that when they’re drinking a beer on the patio or having a latte at the park,” she said. “Then they try to pass laws to stop us from asking for money. Then they get police to arrest us for being on the street, but they don’t want us in the bush. Where the hell is there to go?”
Suzanna McCarthy, from the John Howard Society of Simcoe and Muskoka, described to BarrieToday how bad the situation is.
“It’s really dire. We’re looking at only a couple of more weeks for the hotel model and then we have lots of people who are heading out into homelessness,” she said. “Pair that with the current situation that we’re seeing, which is really aggressive surveillance and policing of those who are unsheltered, and it is a crisis.”
McCarthy said there were approximately 75 people without homes and shelters a few months ago, but she expects that number to grow. Add to that the people the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Busby Centre are assisting and the number climbs to more than 275.
While the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Busby Centre are taking in as many people as they can, McCarthy said the last she heard, there will still be about 100 people who will be looking for shelter somewhere.
McCarthy also spoke to the recent fatality at Milligan’s Pond and how that death affected her and many others who try every day to help those in need.
“It’s painful for us every time we lose a member of this community. For us, they are not just a number, not just a bylaw infraction; they are someone we know, we care about. We know their names, details about them, and we interact with them,” she said. “It’s incredibly frustrating to know that if we had safe alternatives, likely, things like this could be prevented.”
There is also a worry about how some people in power will react after an incident like the one at Milligan’s Pond.
“When we see increased attention, increased push for inclusion and supportive solutions, there is some of that push-back that is always present,” said McCarthy. “People feel emboldened by certain motions and ideas that are brought forward by members of council, for example, and we see the uptake in that NIMBYism (not in my back yard) because they feel they have support around the table. The marginalized ones in the community are the first ones to suffer as a result of that.”
At Monday night’s city council meeting, Mayor Jeff Lehman said the ending of the hotel funding was an “absolutely urgent problem.”
“We’ve known this as urgent and getting more difficult for years. The particular issue of the ending of the funding arrangement is that it’s going to create a new and serious pressure point for people who will suddenly have nowhere to go,” he said.
Dawn McAlpine, the city’s general manager of community and corporate services, said she has had several conversations with County of Simcoe staff, who she said are working with providers to find overflow solutions when the hotel funding is done.
“As well, they are working with those who provide domicile care for some of the people who are currently in the hotel, and working with Empower Simcoe to try and find permanent housing. They are speaking with the province about the challenges associated with the funding ending,” McAlpine said.
"They are trying multiple methods to address that, but as we have discussed tonight, there is not necessarily a magic wand to create housing and, specifically, supportive housing by the end of the month.”
Wendy Hembruff, the county’s director of community programs and community services, told BarrieToday the temporary motel model of shelter was implemented early in the spring of 2020, and made possible through pandemic-specific funding from the provincial and federal governments.
“Provincial Social Services Relief Funding and enhanced federal Reaching Home funding assisted the County of Simcoe to work with emergency shelter providers to implement the motel model. Three of the six emergency shelters transitioned operations to congregate settings in fall 2021, while three are currently transitioning operations from a temporary motel model of shelter to their existing congregate settings,” said Hembruff. “The County of Simcoe leads and manages the system of homelessness prevention services and supports and contracted shelter operators manage the temporary motel model and, therefore, direct and oversee shelter operations.”
She said the county is aware of the situation facing the region as the funding to the hotels runs out.
"We are aware that homelessness has increased in Simcoe County during the pandemic and this trend is reflected provincially and nationally. That is why County of Simcoe council has supported emerging opportunities for housing options and solutions for individuals to transition from homelessness to more permanent accommodations. Initiatives underway include an additional 20 supportive housing units in the City of Barrie and 32 additional units in the Town of Midland,” said Hembruff.
Lehman said at council as the end of the month and the end of the hotel program draw closer, he worries where council will be at that time.
“My fear as we sit here tonight is that a month from now, I will be calling a special meeting of council to address that we have a huge influx into our community, into encampments, into informal living conditions all over the place, into the downtown and elsewhere because there is a sudden end to the funding model, which has provided at least temporary homes for so many individuals,” he said.
— With files from Nikki Cole