Pilot project pairs unhoused people with members of faith communities in Oshawa's bid to tackle homelessness

Oshawa has taken an innovative approach to tackling homelessmess by pairing members of faith communities with those experiencing homelessness, modelled after a nation-wide program that helped welcome Syrian refugees to the country five years ago.

Initiative modelled after 2015 Syrian refugee sponsorship program

Oshawa's mayor says levels of homelessness have sky-rocketed in the city since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. To help offset those increasing numbers, the city has launched a pilot project that pairs members of faith communities with people experiencing homelessness. (Susan Goodspeed/CBC)

For Karen Charpentier, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven one thing: "A lot of us are one paycheck away from perhaps not having a roof over our heads." 

Having grown up in Oshawa and seeing the toll the virus has taken on her community, Charpentier says she had to act. 

"I was sort of raised to try to help people that might not be as blessed as I am," she told CBC Toronto. 

That philosophy is what led Charpentier to sponsor an unsheltered resident living in her community. It's part of Oshawa's new Spirit of Service pilot project that pairs up members of faith communities with those experiencing homelessness. 

These are not homeless people, these are children of people, these are mothers, fathers, and children and sons and daughters.- Rev. Christopher White

The project, launched earlier this month, is modelled after Canada's refugee sponsorship program, which played a key role in welcoming Syrian refugees to the country five years ago. That included sponsoring refugees to help them with housing, employment and fostering friendships. 

Now Oshawa is taking a similar approach to tackling homelessness, mental health issues and addiction. 

4 people sponsored so far, more to come 

The plan has been in the works since 2018, when members of faith communities, social agencies, city officials and volunteers came together to have a conversation about homelessness. 

In the two years that have followed, Rev. Christopher White, co-chair of the program's executive committee, said program leaders mobilized funds, trained volunteers and interviewed potential participants. 

As part of her training, Charpentier said she learned about the multi-faceted issues behind homelessness and trauma.

"It was eye-opening," she said. 

Three weeks since the program has been running, four people have already been sponsored, including one young man, a man in his forties, and two sisters. Program leaders expect that number to grow in the future. 

Karen Charpentier has volunteered to be a sponsor as part of Oshawa's Spirit of Service pilot project. In the three weeks the program has been running, she already helped the person she is matched with to find a basement apartment. (Susan Goodspeed/CBC)

The older man, who Charpentier is sponsoring, had been living in his truck since January. The other three participants had been "very insecurely housed." 

"We sort of refer to ourselves as a circle of care," Charpentier said. 

How it works

Through the program, sponsors will support the person they have been matched with for a period of 18 to 24 months. 

During that time, sponsors will first ensure they are housed, going to appointments and receiving any additional support they need. 

After that, it becomes about helping them find job opportunities and assisting in preparing them for the responsibilities that come with living on their own, such as budgeting, cooking, paying rent, buying groceries and taking advantage of government assistance programs. 

City officials say a higher number of people experiencing homelessness come to Oshawa because of the many social assistance programs offered there.  (Susan Goodspeed/CBC)

"It's about co-creating and listening to what they want out of their lives," White said. 

"These are not homeless people, these are children of people, these are mothers, fathers, and children and sons and daughters," he said. 

And that, he added, is why it's up to the collective community to "make sure they are treated with the dignity that all human beings deserve." 

Homelessness 'exploding' in the city, mayor says 

Driving this initiative — in large part — is Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter, who experienced homelessness himself. 

"I am so grateful that I was given an opportunity to recover find forgiveness and find an opportunity to become sober in my life," he told CBC Toronto.

"I never forget about those days."

Carter said he has experienced "a lot of brokenness in his life," including the loss of his sister through suicide. 

It's because of those experiences, he said, that he is able to serve "differently" as an elected official. 

Carter said the population of unsheltered residents across the city — which tends to ebb and flow periodically — has sky-rocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter said there's 'great examples across this country' of communities coming together to help Canada's population of some 240,000 individuals who are currently unshuteltered. (CBC)

Not only that, but there has also been an increase in those facing mental illness and addiction issues, Carter added. Playing a large part in those issues is the opioid "health epidemic." 

"Since COVID-19 hit in March, it is absolutely exploding," he said.

Eventually, Cater hopes the program will come full circle with those who participated and received help becoming ambassadors themselves, supporting people struggling through the same issues they have experienced. 

He also hopes other communities will take a similar approach to curbing homelessness. 

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if other communities had a realization that the power is within us and that we can actually do something unique in each communities to help those that are suffering?" 

With files from Ali Chiasson