Transitional housing needed for homeless people being released from custody
Ontario housing minister to discuss matter further with Thunder Bay social services board
Officials with the agency that runs social housing in Thunder Bay are calling for the province to create a working group to address a lack of supportive, transitional housing for homeless individuals who have no place to go when they're released from custody.
The issue has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as reduced capacity in emergency shelters has meant homeless individuals who are in custody are finding it very difficult to secure a place to stay upon their release.
But the issue stretches back farther than the start of the pandemic, said Bill Bradica, CAO of the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board (TBDSSAB), the agency that manages social housing in the city.
"Luckily, in the City of Thunder Bay, there are organizations like [the] John Howard Society and Elizabeth Fry [Society] that do provide assistance to individuals," Bradica said. "But it appears to us that they are under-resourced and they need more capacity."
Bradica said the process involves inmates connecting with organizations like John Howard, Elizabeth Fry, or the Salvation Army prior to release. The organizations can determine if appropriate space is available for an inmate, and if so, they're transported to the organization upon release.
"If those organizations are full, then typically the emergency shelter system would then be utilized," Bradica said. "But if the shelter system is at capacity, then there's no other formal mechanism for released people to go to."
Shelter space dropped during pandemic
And during the COVID-19 pandemic, the space available at emergency shelters has been reduced, and the demand for beds remains high. But Bradica said emergency shelters don't meet the needs of homeless inmates.
Bradica said numbers of people going from custody to the TBDSSAB system weren't available. However, he added, "our sense is it's a fairly high number."
"And we really saw an increase during COVID, when there was an attempt to reduce the population in the jail and the system in order to provide for better physical distancing. And we saw a big increase in the demand on not only the emergency shelters, but the overflow and isolation hotel system."
Still, he said, emergency shelters aren't the solution.
"Emergency shelters really aren't the right place," he said. "Ideally, as an organization, we're looking to reduce and hopefully eventually eliminate the need for emergency shelters."
"Transitional and supportive housing is really what's needed and more permanent space for people," he said. "And that's what's lacking is not only more transitional spaces in terms of capital, but also funding to provide for staffing, to provide the supports to those people post-incarceration."
Need a place 'we can call our own'
Lucy Kloosterhuis, chair of the TBDSSAB board, said the problem isn't limited to Thunder Bay; other DSSABs in the region are also facing a shortage of shelter space for homeless people who are released from custody.
"It's a concern for all of them," she said. "It's a process that hasn't been thought out, or really looked at."
Kloosterhuis said what's needed is coming up with a process that would guide people from when they're first incarcerated, through to when they leave custody and go to a place where "they could feel safe."
"It doesn't matter who we are, if it is someone who's been incarcerated or someone who's homeless," she said. "The most important thing that we all need is a place that we can call our own, a place we can put our head down at night and feel safe."
"If there's addiction problems or mental problems, if those supports are also available, we will get that person so that they become self-sufficient and then they are no longer coming back and starting the process over again," Kloosterhuis said. "That's the aim, I believe, of all of us, is to see a process by which we can get everyone to become self-sufficient and be a part of the society."
Earlier this summer, in preparation for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario meeting, the TBDSSAB passed a resolution calling on Ontario's "Solicitor General and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing — along with a housing service manager co-chair — convene a working group to address the issue of homelessness upon release from incarceration."
In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing said Minister Steve Clark was not scheduled to meet with the TBDSSAB at this year's AMO conference, which recently wrapped up.
However, the ministry has extended an invitation to TBDSSAB to discuss the issue further and identify local solutions.
Kloosterhuis said TBDSSAB representatives did meet with Ontario Association Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Michael Tibollo, and she is hopeful a solution will be developed.
"I really believe that the message is is getting through in our conversations with Minister Tibollo," she said. "He definitely has the message, has received the message, understands the message."
"He's always had a very good knowledge of what's going on here," Kloosterhuis said. "So I'm very hopeful. I sincerely believe that the Solicitor General and the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing are also looking at this situation very seriously and really look forward to working with all of them to see us move forward."