Durham Region needs $105 million Band-Aid

Walking down the street of Oshawa’s downtown core, fingers clench your bag as you cross paths with someone who looks and smells like they haven’t showered in months. The bustling crowd that often surrounds St. Vincent Pallotti’s Kitchen in the heart of the city is amidst run-down houses and people who frequently sleep on the street. Those are just some of the reasons why Oshawa, or the dirty ‘Shwa as it’s colloquially referred to, has a bad reputation. But the old question, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is very relevant in deciding whether Durham Region has a homeless problem, or simply not enough housing.

St. Vincent’s Kitchen is Durham Outlook’s core program and is the only soup kitchen in the Durham Region which serves patrons 365 days a year. The building matches many in the area and is usually encircled with hungry people eagerly awaiting a hot meal. As you descend the steep stairs which connect to a small room, excited chatter immediately fills your ears. A small dining area, fit to seat roughly 60 people is filled with somewhere between 100 – 150 people daily. The accommodations here are far from ideal.

Even though the atmosphere and appearance of some patrons may seem intimidating, according to Durham Outlook’s executive director, Jodi Millen, many of the kitchen’s patrons are not homeless.

Jodi Millen, executive director of Durham Outlook.
Jodi Millen, executive director of Durham Outlook.

“There’s a great misconception about who our patrons are, it’s incredibly diverse,” says Millen.

Joanne Woudstra, 59, has been a patron of St. Vincent’s kitchen for more than 20 years. She is not homeless nor intimidating. In fact, she owns her own home and rents out rooms to help pay her mortgage.

According to data from Numbeo, the cost of living in Oshawa is six per cent higher than Toronto. Even though most items, such as the cost of food and rent, are about on par in terms of price, people living in Oshawa pay nearly double for apartment utilities.

Trying to supplement her mortgage with boarders, even though she receives up to $500 every two weeks, just isn’t enough says Woudstra. It’s worse for those who are even less fortunate.

Some of the patrons at St. Vincent’s are homeless, but many are not. “They’re couch-surfing, they are sometimes on the benches in the summer. Oshawa does not have so much of a homeless problem as an under-housing problem,” says Millen.

In March 2015, there were 5,422 seniors, singles, couples and families who were on the waiting list for Rent-Geared-Income (RGI) housing, which tailors your rent around your income. Of those 5,422, a little more than five per cent of those (301) were listed as no priority.

There are 90 individual social housing buildings throughout Durham Region, most of them owned by smaller housing providers.

Dan Carter is a regional councillor and president of Durham Region Non-Profit Housing Corporation (DRNHC), a non-profit housing provider, which owns 18 buildings with 1,100 units throughout Durham Region.

According to Carter, the demand for housing exceeds the number of buildings and the list for RGI housing is not a short one.

“The unfortunate part is many people are waiting on the list, not only with our organization, but with all the socialized housing files across the region, but they could be waiting from anywhere between four to five years,” says Carter.

Even though these numbers show the state of social housing, the general situation throughout Durham Region isn’t much better. In 2015, the average vacancy rate of one, two and three bedroom apartments in Durham Region was 1.7 per cent, while the national average was sitting at 2.9 per cent, according to Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). To put this in perspective, for every 1000 rental units across Durham, only 17 are available for rent – and that doesn’t even guarantee they meet renter’s needs or are in any sort of condition.

Access to housing is clearly an issue, not only in Durham, but across Ontario (and Canada) and the government is taking notice.

In 2014, Durham Region announced their 10-year housing plan. At Home in Durham concentrates on four key goals: Ending Homelessness in Durham, Affordable Rent for Everyone, Greater Housing Choices and Strong and Vibrant Neighbourhoods.

This aligns with the 2016 provincial budget in which the Ontario government committed to investing $178 million over three years toward housing, including to support the construction of up to 1,500 new supportive housing units.

According to Carter, in order to build even 70 – 80 new units it would cost somewhere around $12 million. For the short-term, the quality of life of residents in supportive housing is more important and more manageable than building new units.

“What we’ve been able to assess is that we would need somewhere in the neighbourhood of about $105 million dollars in the next 10 – 15 years to reinvest into our existing housing sites to be able to meet climate change aspects, green energy, better windows, all this kind of retrofitting of our housing sites,” says Carter.

Although Carter says DRNHC has the capacity to take on 3000 – 5000 more units throughout the region, the money just isn’t available.

“We’re all just waiting with bated breath, waiting on the federal government,” says Bob Chapman, regional councillor and DRNHC board member.

While waiting for national action on the federal level, things are happening at the provincial level.

One of 18 buildings owned by Durham Non-Profit Housing Corporation throughout Durham Region.
One of 18 buildings owned by Durham Non-Profit Housing Corporation throughout Durham Region.

In 2015, the provincial government established an Expert Advisory Panel on Homelessness in an effort to create a better understanding of the definition of homelessness, its scope and ways to better collect data related to homelessness. Based on the panel’s report, titled A Place to Call Home, the Ontario government has set a goal of ending homelessness in 10 years. At this point, the government will provide up to $10 million over two years through the Local Poverty Reduction Fund to aid in the prevention and elimination of homelessness

According to both Carter and Chapman, even though there’s a clear need for more supportive housing, such as RGI housing, there are other things of importance to keep in mind.

“We’re trying to create an environment on our housing sites that really adds to the quality of the life of the individual. In some circumstances, they have complex issues that are going on in their life,” says Carter. “So we want to make sure our housing sites are clean and safe, that they are able to utilize our communities to enhance their lives or their children’s lives.”

Through assessments of their buildings and evaluations, DRNHC was able to determine what the communities of their 18 sites across Durham Region would require to thrive.

“What we’ve been able to assess is that we would need somewhere in the neighbourhood of about $105 million dollars in the next 10 – 15 years to reinvest into our existing housing sites to be able to meet climate change aspects, green energy, better windows, all this kind of retrofitting of our housing sites,” says Carter.

Chapman adds that given their budget, the DRNHC makes improvements as often as possible, such as switching to low-flush toilets to save water and changing the windows in some units so they’re more energy efficient, which saves on the heating bill.

“We’re doing what we can within the budget, but we certainly need more money for two aspects. One is for some great improvements to the stock that we have, but in addition, to add more units because there is that need,” says Chapman. “This government is talking about green (environmentally friendly) so it’d be nice to be able to get some green stuff in some of those older places, you know, windows, even maybe change some of them from electric heat to forced air gas because it’s cheaper. But this is what we’re looking for here.”

A renewed commitment from the government for more social housing funds, improvements to existing housing and a better awareness of the housing issues which face Durham Region, show solutions seem to be on the way. But in the mean time, improving the quality of life, providing support and resources for those in supportive housing is the highest priority. Once you wade through the crowd outside of St. Vincent’s Kitchen and descend the steep stairs into the crowded basement of smiling faces and full stomachs, the reality of the situation becomes apparent. None of these people choose to be without homes. But they have few options.

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Alyssa Bugg is a second-year journalism student at Durham College. When it comes to writing and reporting, she enjoys covering events and connecting with her audience by writing about topics she feels matter to them. She likes to spend her spare time on both her personal and The Chronicle's Twitter accounts (for hours - it's a problem), researching and reading about audience engagement and spending some down time with her bunny, Mac. Alyssa hopes to work in a communications role or news organization in a digital capacity following graduation.