'This winter has been unprecedented': How Barrie, Ont.'s homeless shelters are dealing at capacity

Homeless shelters in Barrie, Ont., are full almost every night. Some have had to turn people away. Shelters are pinning the blame on a lack of affordable housing.

Shelters say spike caused by lack of affordable housing

Alan Oakes sits in the dining room at the Salvation Army Bayside Mission in Barrie, Ont., where he volunteers. Oakes has been living at the men's homeless shelter since last October. The shelter, along with many others in Barrie, are full almost every single night. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Check in any night at the Salvation Army's homeless shelter downtown Barrie, Ont., and it's almost guaranteed to be full.

That means all 46 beds are taken and overflow mats are sprawled out wall-to-wall. Even then, there's still men looking to stay over — the Bayside Mission is the only men's shelter in the area.

The shelter, like many in Barrie, has seen a significant spike in use.

"This past year, 2017, we were almost at capacity 97, 98 per cent of the nights," said executive director Major Doug Lewis. "We can't say no. We cannot say no and turn people away."

A man walks past the Salvation Army Bayside Mission, downtown Barrie, Ont. The shelter has 46 beds, almost always full, and up to 20 overflow mats they place on the floor. It can get quite hectic at night. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Lewis blames it on a lack of affordable housing — an issue the fast growing city has been struggling to deal with. It's one of the most expensive places to rent in the country (the typical two bedroom apartment went for $1,205 in late 2017) and has seen a surge in housing prices, among the biggest in the province from 2016 to 2017.

"The dilemma we have is that we have a housing first approach program but there's no housing," said Lewis.

'We try to exhaust every avenue'

Alan Oakes started staying at the shelter last October. He's noticed how full it has gotten and thinks there's no room for more people.

"There's only so many showers. There's more guys in here now than there ever was," he said.

Oakes got lucky when he checked in. There was one bed left, so he snapped it up. He's in a transition room, where he pays rent and can stay for one year. Some of his friends haven't been as lucky.

Oakes points out a quote he likes on the wall of the Salvation Army. He said his church has helped him get through this tough time. 'I never thought I’d be in the Salvation Army. You know? But that’s where I ended up.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"There are times when guys come in and they have no place to go and there's no beds. They just have to turn them away which is kind of sad." He said a 68-year-old friend, recently diagnosed with cancer, was just discharged from the Salvation Army and is now sleeping on a mat on another floor.

Lewis said that nobody has been turned away and the shelter will go through a list if full, calling other programs, detox centres and hospitals to check availability. Often if someone hears it is full when they check in, they will find another place to stay, like a friend's couch.

"We try to exhaust every avenue that we can."

A close-up of a sign advising residents and visitors to be respectful in the downtown area.
Several signs in downtown Barrie remind people not to panhandle. Jeff Lehman, the city's mayor, recently acknowledged that more needs to be done to get supportive housing to people experiencing homelessness. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Similarly, Barrie's Joyce Cope House has a policy to not turn any woman away. The house, run by the Elizabeth Fry Society of Simcoe County, saw a 15 to 20 per cent jump in the number of women needing emergency shelter this winter.

"In December actually, we were at 110 per cent occupancy," said executive director Joy Thompson, with all 27 beds and couches in the women's shelter completely full. 

"This winter has been unprecedented."

'Wish we didn't have to turn anyone away'

Thompson too blames the housing market, asking for affordable units that the women using the shelter would be able to pay for on their own.

Part of Barrie's own strategy is to create 840 affordable housing units by the year 2024. But even those may prove too expensive for those at the shelter. Mayor Jeff Lehman recently acknowledged that more needs to be done to get supportive housing to the homeless.

Some people think that some of the youths are here just because they don't want to be at home ... not everyone is in that certain circumstance. Some people are actually homeless and have nowhere to go.- Jeremy Johnson-Ellis, Youth Haven resident

Lucy Gowers, executive director of Youth Haven, another homeless shelter but for youth ages 16 to 24, is pressing to make it a provincial election issue.

"It's something that not everyone knows about or talks about because unfortunately, if you don't see this happening in your world, you're not really going to — and it's really sad to say — give it a lot of thought."

She said eight to 10 youth are turned away from Youth Haven every month because it is too full but their councillors work to get the youth into another shelter or make sure they have a place to stay.

Lucy Gowers stands at the door to Youth Haven, a shelter for youth ages 16 to 24. The shelter has 16 beds and usually whips up a few more makeshift beds on the couches in the living room. But that's often not enough. 'It’s a housing situation, a housing crisis but it’s also a homeless crisis.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"We don't like to turn anyone away and we really wish we didn't have to turn anyone away but sometimes the reality is that we have to."

Jeremy Johnson-Ellis is currently sleeping on one of the three couches in the living room at Youth Haven but is working on getting long-term housing. He's having a hard time.

"Depending on where you want to live, sometimes, most times, especially downtown Barrie, it's not the cleanest or the greatest environment for what you're paying," he said. "It gets pretty expensive."