Pandemic and hot housing market fueling homelessness in rural Elgin County

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An Elgin County health agency hopes to tackle the growing homelessness crisis in rural communities amid growing demand for its services.

West Elgin Community Health Center serves over 30 adults and children at risk or experiencing homelessness in Dutton Dunwich and West Elgin, a combined population of 9,000.

“I have been in this position for three months now, and since I arrived the number of cases has doubled,” said Tanya Dale, the centre’s rural homeless systems navigator, a position created this year for support people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. roaming in Elgin County outside of St. Thomas.

“We kept seeing more and more people saying, ‘I’ve been living in this house for 20 years, the owners decided to sell the house. I can’t afford market rent, and there is nothing to rent as is. ”

This is in stark contrast to three years ago, said health center president David James.

“Usually the center had one, maybe two clients,” caring for the homeless, he said. “They could cope with that kind of workload. Now it’s . . . five, six to eight to 10. . . etc. ”

In response, the center partnered with community groups last year to form the Homelessness Coalition of West Elgin and Dutton Dunwich, made up of concerned residents, members of the health center and municipal and provincial politicians.

The group aims to tackle two main problems: the short-term emergency situation, for example, by supporting those who are homeless in winter; and the lack of affordable and rental housing.

In an effort to engage the rest of Elgin County, the coalition prepared for municipalities in the area a 62-page report detailing the increase in homelessness in rural communities and the immediate and long-term housing needs. term.

“(Hidden homelessness) is something that’s probably everywhere, but it’s especially prevalent in rural areas,” James said.

“Generally, everyone knows everyone. There is a lot of stigma associated with homelessness. People don’t want to. . . raise your hand and say, “I’m homeless, can you help me? “”

Hidden homelessness, which usually takes the form of surfing on a couch or staying with friends, affects everyone from families to young and old alike.

Over the years, the invisible problem has become more apparent in rural areas, exposing gaps in the housing system and lack of resources for vulnerable populations.

In Aylmer, the wintering East Elgin Housing Initiative emergency shelter housed eight people in its first year between 2019 and 2020, according to the report released last month. That jumped to 23 last winter.

Other than five shelters in St. Thomas, there are no other shelter services for residents of the county.

Connect the growing crisis to the pandemic, which has led to a tight housing market that has crowded out many low-income adults and families, James said.

“The pandemic is the main cause. I don’t think there is a question, ”he said. “The only impact, certainly, is that a lot of people have lost their jobs.”

The problem is compounded by more people moving from urban centers to rural areas, such as Toronto and Hamilton, and more landlords selling single-family homes that are already rented.

A long-term priority for the coalition is affordable housing. More than 1,000 people in Elgin are on the waiting list for subsidized housing, up from 374 in 2017. They face a wait of two to nine years.

Less than 2% of the 2,000 housing units planned across the county are considered affordable. The report recommends making at least 20% of new housing affordable to house moderate to low income households.

Funded by the City of St. Thomas, the report was produced by Welch Consulting Inc. The coalition will present it to all municipalities in the region at a meeting on Wednesday.

“From our perspective, we hope that the output of this meeting will be plans for the next steps,” James said.

“There is no quick fix,” he added. “There are a whole bunch of things. . . we can do or start doing, including updating official plans and changing zoning bylaws to help resolve short and long term issues.

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