Durham Region, and Oshawa in particular, has long struggled to support its most population. [Interviewee]’s story is but one of many tales of people falling into the near-inescapable maw of homelessness.
In its 2017 Point-in-Time (PiT) count, the Durham Development Council found 369 people throughout Durham Region were experiencing homelessness at that time. Three quarters of the unsheltered population were living in Oshawa at that time. The PiT discovered nearly half of these people were chronically homeless, defined as living on the street for six months in a year.
These numbers continue to grow since the initial findings. Oshawa had around 50 people living without shelter in the city in 2019, but by the fall of 2020 that number exploded to nearly 300, according to Mayor Dan Carter.
The reasons for this increase in unsheltered people are myriad and complex. However, most agree it is due to Oshawa offering services other Durham communities do not.
Among these is the Back Door Mission. While the Mission is unaffiliated with any religious organization, they operate out of the Simcoe Street United Church in downtown Oshawa. They offer a warm meal, rest and shower facilities and harm-reduction supplies to an average of 200 people a day.
The Mission is headed by Oshawa City Councillor Derek Giberson, who says the causes of urban poverty were already at a tipping point.
“Pre-pandemic we already had a housing crisis and an opioid crisis,” he says. “Those already existed. What the pandemic has done is made those challenges far more visible. The challenges people are facing have become more significant.”
The Mission has numerous partnerships to provide services; the Canadian Mental Health Association, Durham Mental Health Services, John Howard Society and Durham Region Social Services all offer outreach serves through this Mission United Project.
The municipal government response has mostly derived from the regional level, as the city has limited ability to respond given the two-tiered government.
Giberson says the region’s support has been “critically helpful.” He cites the Critical Care Outreach program, which sends a paramedic and a social worker into encampments, as an example.
Meanwhile DIRE, a local advocacy group, is described by Executive Director Christeen Thornton as “a loose collective.” They advocate for more services directed to urban poverty with a focus on research and advocacy.
“There’s a lot of gaps in terms of where the research is being done, that we feel come from a place of privilege,” Thornton says.
“If you understand poverty to be a trauma of sorts, being able to escape that is actually a privilege because it depends, not on someone’s mental fortitude, but really their network.”
In Thornton’s view, an unsheltered person needs “to know a guy” in order to procure shelter. “We really don’t like that. It’s not the norm to be able to escape poverty by design,” she says.
“We know because of the numbers the city is not doing well.”
A key step in alleviating urban poverty is increased access to housing.
“The housing crisis that we’re facing in Oshawa is not unique to Oshawa. It’s happening in every city across the country,” Giberson explains. “There’s been a monumental shift in the last several years where what was once a big city problem has become a middle and small city problem.”
Housing cost in Canada have been on the rise for decades. The average cost of a house in Oshawa has grown 36 per cent in the last year, which is ten times the average.
Giberson explains that while there have been numerous factors, blame rest predominantly on a lack of affordable housing. He says various federal and provincial governments have failed to provide it for the last 30 years.
“It’s been a three-decade perfect storm in the making,” he says, explaining a great many homes were built from the 1960s to the 1990s, but that it then “completely drops off like a cliff.”
“We’re not in a housing crisis because of the character of those on the street. We’re not in a housing crisis because of government red tape on the building industry. The reason we’re in a housing crisis is because federal and provincial governments stopped investing in affordable housing,” says Giberson.
In fact, the housing stock has been depleted since existing affordable units have not been maintained. The homes enter a state of disrepair until they are condemned.
Beyond affordable housing, the increase in the cost of owning a home has kept many who would like to purchase out of the market, forcing them to continue renting, increasing the strain on a finite market. This effect compounds for those with low incomes forcing them out of the rental market.
The final big issue keeping housing unaffordable for many is what Giberson referred to as “land-banking.” This is the practice of buying a home for the sole purpose of allowing the market to inflate, then selling it for profit. These homes are often left vacant for the duration.
“I think all levels of government need to look at the legislative tools at their disposal,” Giberson says. The federal government has responded with a ten-year, $40 billion National Housing Strategy. The strategy is made up of individual agreements with each province to increase housing supply.
DIRE meanwhile is doing policy analysis on to find out why the municipality sold its affordable housing units. They’re doing case studies on Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) from the community PPP are meant to benefit.
“We’re getting information from a demographic that, largely, would have no idea what a PPP is,” she says.
DIRE is pursuing five projects to increase housing access. In order to accomplish these projects, they are steered by a committee of what Thronton calls “ignored demographics.”
The first such project seeks to amend the Residential Rental Landlord Licensing System. DIRE also wants to lobby Oshawa and Durham Region to expand Rent Ceiling legislation.
The Ontario government has frozen rent increases in 2021 but the freeze ends on December 31.
“We’re just asking them to expand that legislation.” Thornton says. “We don’t need to re-invent the wheel.”
“I think everyone is struggling at least a little bit, even homeowners. I think the housing issues people on the lower end of the spectrum have been facing for decades are starting to become very real to people in other socio-economic classes,” she says.
Other issues exacerbated during the pandemic include drug use and the opioid crisis. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) has found significant increases in alcohol, marijuana and opioid use.
In a February 2021 Leger poll, 30 per cent of respondents indicated increased use. That number jumps to almost 50 per cent for those who have struggled with drug abuse in the past.
In early 2019, Giberson pushed for legislation to introduce Safe Injection Sites (SIS) into Oshawa’s downtown. Similar programs throughout the country have seen overdose rates fall, and hospitalizations decrease. Several outreach groups in the city partnered to create these locations.
However, city council did not pursue the program, as some councillors could not agree on the logistics and location. Per Ontario legislation, city council needed to approve the safe consumption sites but Oshawa’s council voted 6-5 against it.
Giberson was disappointed in this decision: “I’m very much a proponent. It’s proven to save lives. Anyone who looks at the data knows that it works.”
In 2018, just before council voted against SIS, Durham Region paramedics recorded 423 suspected overdose calls. The year after, that number jumped to 550. In 2020 the number increased again to 725 suspected overdose calls.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also devastated the job market.
According to Statistics Canada, the country has lost [X] jobs in 2020. The unemployment rate reached an all-time high in May 2020, with 13.7 per cent of Canadians unemployed. Prior to the pandemic Canada had seen five years of steady job growth. In December of 2019, only 5.4 per cent of Canadians were unemployed.
As a result, the federal government introduced the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which guaranteed $2000 a month to those out of work.
While the push for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has grown in recent years, it picked up renewed steam after the pandemic. The current Ontario government ended an earlier pilot program as soon as Premier Ford took office. The federal NDP has pushed for CERB to grow into a UBI system.
Giberson supports such a measure to alleviate poverty across Canada. “I would clearly like to see UBI. I support it. I think it’s a good way of giving people a safety net,” he says.
Giberson says UBI would reduce some government costs by combining Ontario Works and Ontario Disability benefit services. “We could redeploy those resources into other avenues,” he explains.
“Rather than making this decision off of ideological grounds, let’s see if it works,” he says, “let’s see if it put people in a position where they can better themselves and do better things.
“The people who always say ‘Oh, why should people be given a free base income? That’s wrong,’ and it’s somehow morally offensive to them, they don’t seem to get very mad when people from affluent families have a basic income that they can always rely on,” he continues. “It seems very nonsensical to be fine with it for some segments of society and not for others.”
Thornton also raises concerns about income in Oshawa. She says that while StatsCan’s poverty index describes everyone making less than $30 000 a year as “impoverished,” after crunching numbers she found anyone making under $70 000 was likely struggling.
Thornton explains the influx of new residents is a concern. “I’d like to see some more information about that demographic,” she says. “The mayor likes to keep boasting ‘ooh, it’s because we’re an affordable city’, so you’re saying people are moving here because they can’t afford things.”
Rent-geared-to-income property is controlled by Durham’s regional government. Thornton believes this hinders progress. “The mayor makes everything seem really great,” she says, “but they don’t have the legislative power to walk the walk.”
Another evolving facet of the crisis in housing accessibility is increased security and policing needs. Due to the increased strain on Oshawa’s security apparatus, the city hired a private security company, CDN Protection, to patrol the downtown core.
Oshawa council spent over $100 000 on the contract which saw unarmed guards monitor the city from July to September 2020. The motion, put forward by Councillor Brad Marks, says the increased attention was necessary because of an “increase in unsheltered people in the downtown,” which he said resulted in drug use, vandalism and public defecation.
The hiring proved controversial in Oshawa. Some residents supported the project in theory, but not the company hired, others thought it did not go far enough and more thought the entire project was bad for the city.
“It was a very diverse response in terms of what people felt about it,” Giberson says. “We heard from businesses and organizations downtown, as well as some of the senior population, who spoke positively about it. They didn’t feel comfortable speaking out publicly about it because of some of the backlash.”
Days later council approved the contract despite the concerns.
Giberson notes the project was aimed not only at improving safety for Oshawa’s sheltered residents, particularly seniors, but also at reducing violence between unsheltered individuals.
“There are multiple layers of tragedy, where you have a people who are vulnerable perpetuating some of the consequences of being in that marginalized group on each other,” says Giberson. “Anyone who’s saying this is simple is uninformed.”
Thornton thought the money used for this contract was indicative of DIRE’s progress.
“We thought we were having an impact, but then the city went and spent a whole bunch of that money on efforts remove people from parks and stuff,” she says.
Giberson refutes this assertion.
He says CDN was hired to enforce by-laws: “If I left council in a three-piece suit and lit a cigarette in the park, I’d have been asked to leave. Oshawa’s parks are for everyone.”
Oshawa’s government is obligated to present a report on CDN Security. However, in the eight months since the project concluded, there has been no announcement. Thornton presumes this is because issues were brought up to Council before the contract was signed.
“I thought about this, because I was so mad for so long,” she says. “The reason we’re not getting the public statements is because they know they screwed up.”
Conflict surrounding these issues will continue to fester between communities looking to improve the situation of so many of Oshawa’s citizens.
Giberson, for his part, thinks progress is being made both through the Back Door Mission and through city hall.
“We saw an acute crisis unfolding,” he says, adding that the Mission has been a success that far exceeded what was expected.
At the same time, he says it’s impossible to please everyone.
“There are others who put themselves out front and centre,” he says. “Sometime people establish themselves as an authority on things they’re simply not authorities on.”
“They’ll get up on their soap box and knock the city and knock the Region of Durham,” says Giberson. “At the end of the day who are they accountable to?”
TG ended edits here
While Thornton laments what she sees as the wrong focus in city hall, “I’m from Toronto myself.” She says, “At first, I thought Oshawa was very similar, but it’s just not.”
“The focus really seems to be on the higher to middle income class and then the business class, and everyone else can go fly a kite.”
However, both agree that Oshawa’s citizens need to educate themselves on the issues at hand, and the lives those issues impact. good
For those who wonder how they can help with these crises, Giberson says: “The number one thing I push people towards is, first and foremost, is to educate yourself. Do what you can to learn. If you’re informed, if you’re educated, you’re in a far better position to help.”
Thornton concurs, in her own way, “People need to, as they’re able, try to become more engaged in what’s going on at the municipal level.”
However, she adds a caveat: “Try to be objective about it because everybody has a price. Some people have really low buys and sometimes that buy is just public praise and they try to please everyone and get nothing done.”