'We can help solve this': Sudbury housing advocate calls for long-term solutions to end homelessness
Creating more affordable housing key to tackling the issue, says Aaron St. Pierre
Inside the Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury, Ont., a man picks out a few pairs of jeans, some long johns, and searches for a winter coat among donations of clothing from local community members.
A volunteer places the items in a bag, and offers the man a few other goodies on his way out: some homemade cookies, sandwiches, and hot coffee to warm him up on this winter day.
The man has been homeless for three years. But he says moments like this leave him feeling optimistic.
"It still gives me hope that there's still an opportunity, and a chance," he says.
In 2018, around 3,000 people in the northern Ontario city experienced some form of homelessness, or were at risk of becoming homeless, according to data from the Homeless Hub. Of those people, more than 40 per cent identified as Indigenous.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated many of the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness.
More people are finding themselves without a roof over their head, and social services agencies have had to alter programming and services.
Volunteers like those working out of the Church of the Epiphany have stepped up to fill some of the gaps — providing clothing, food and toiletries when pandemic health measures have prevented other agencies from doing so.
Denise Sandul is among those offering a helping hand — something she started doing after her son died of a suspected opioid overdose last year.
She goes out three or four times a week to offer people items like socks and hand warmers. While she says she knows she can't "save" people, she hopes she can "make that day a little better for them."
"These people are so grateful just to receive what they need for that night," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
But advocates for the homeless say Band-Aid solutions won't be enough to tackle homelessness in the long run — and that the real solution lies in bolstering the city's stock of affordable housing.
'Holistic' approach to housing
"I'm a proponent of the housing first principle, which states we need to provide housing before anything else," said Aaron St. Pierre, with the Native People of Sudbury Development Corporation.
"And I think that's what's really missing right now in Sudbury, but also in other cities."
Without a safe place to live and sleep, it's difficult for people to take care of their physical and mental health, or to hold down a job, St. Pierre told Galloway.
That's why his organization tries to take a "holistic approach" to addressing homelessness. Instead of seeing a person as a "unit that goes into a housing unit," the corporation tries to address that person's overall needs.
"We try to take care of their spiritual well-being, their mental health, their physical health," St. Pierre said.
"And by really trying to connect the person with the right resources, and providing those resources ourselves when we can, we see way more success."
City funding, consultations
Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger said the city recognizes the urgency of the homelessness situation, and how the pandemic has made things more difficult.
The city has responded with COVID-19 relief funding for warming centre services, he said, and city staff have been directed to find opportunities for transitional housing.
"We know that people need support," he said. "So we're working in that direction."
Earlier this year, city council also held consultations with local service providers and homeless individuals, to hear their concerns and ideas for improving the supports available to people.
Gail Spencer, the city's co-ordinator of shelters and homelessness, told CBC News in February that officials received hundreds of comments about the issue through an online portal. People raised concerns about housing availability and affordability, lack of income and addiction issues.
A final report on the consultations, which will include recommendations for moving forward, is expected in March.
St. Pierre applauded the city's commitment to addressing homelessness in Sudbury.
But it's only a first step, he said.
He said all levels of government need to invest in affordable housing.
"There's a lot of people in this world who are committed to helping people and to doing good," said St. Pierre.
"They're in our community, they're in our schools and in our government. And I think if … we get enough people working together on these issues, you know, we can help solve this."
Written by Kirsten Fenn, with files from CBC News. Produced by Ben Jamieson.
This story is the part of Canada's Road Ahead, The Current's series talking to Canadians about how the pandemic has changed their lives, and what comes next. Read more of those stories below.