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Real estate price surge spurs rise in homelessness in rural Elgin County

Advocates say rising housing costs are leaving more people vulnerable to homelessness in rural Elgin County and the situation is getting worse. 

Residents faced with higher costs, fewer affordable housing options

Tanya Dale is the rural homelessness systems navigator for Elgin County. (Tanya Dale )

Advocates say rising housing costs are leaving more people vulnerable to homelessness in rural Elgin County, and the situation is getting worse. 

"The price of housing in Elgin County has gone up in the last five years by 150 per cent," said David James, board chair of the West Elgin Community Health Centre. "A house in West Elgin sold earlier this year for $180,000 over the asking price. Local people just can't afford that."

James said the pandemic and spiraling housing costs in larger centres have brought an influx of outside buyers to the area, contributing to higher housing prices — a situation being felt in rural areas throughout the region.

"The people who are becoming homeless here are people from our community," said James. "We're not seeing an influx of homeless people coming in from the cities."

'I wish I could find something here'

As Elgin's rural homeless systems navigator, Tanya Dale serves a roster of clients from across the county. When she started the job in June, her client list had about 10 names. Since then it's nearly doubled. 

In Port Stanley, a community of about 2,000 on the shore of Lake Erie, Dale says she's working to support two elderly people at risk of sleeping rough. 

"They told me they would rather live on the beach than go to a shelter or live in the city," she said. "I wish I could find them something here, but there is nothing." 

A recent study by the Homelessness Coalition of West Elgin & Dutton Dunwich, says local people experiencing homelessness also struggle with greater travel distances, a lack of public transit and heightened risk of stigma due to a lack of anonymity in many rural communities. 

Meanwhile, the report says, wait lists for subsidized housing in the county's rural communities increased from 374 applicants in 2017 to 1,014 by 2021. 

Dale has a "wish list" of changes she'd like to see adopted in Elgin County.

It includes a mid-term housing unit to accommodate people for longer periods and provide services from a central location, as well as a rural shelter that can accommodate families, so they won't have to travel to St. Thomas or London.

James says without affordable options, residents facing the possibility of homelessness are likely to leave the county altogether. 

"It is frustrating; it really is," said James. "We need governments at all levels with more social conscience, because this problem has been worsened by the pandemic ... but it's been coming for a long time."

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