-24C Windchill and where do Muskoka's homeless go? Local politicians don't seem to have answers






Agatha Farmer


MUSKOKA - Muskoka has a built and equipped shelter for men begging for district or municipal funding to operate this winter. Today is November 13, winter has just begun and the temperatures are idling at -20 and colder with the windchill. Frost bite will set in within minutes for those without shelter, so where exactly are our local politicians, district and municipalities to aid those most vulnerable this season?


Having attended countless council meetings in various Muskoka municipalities including district, I hear a lot of conversations around affordable and attainable housing. To be honest the argument around the definition of affordable and attainable is more of a discussion around council tables than actual strategic conversations or goals. Regardless, while the affordable housing discussion is somewhat on the table given that statistically 50 percent of Muskoka residents can not afford shelter, the topic of homelessness is generally mute.


In 2018 the district released a Homeless Enumeration Report which was based on conducting a one week survey of 159 people. First, the number of participant surveyed is abysmal, and frankly inadequate to provide the true scope of the issue. Second, to base a report on 159 people and call it a measure of progress for data compilation is also inadequate.


The report states the following;


"Throughout the enumeration week, community-based enumerators engaged 159 residents with 142 of these individuals identified as experiencing homelessness and precarious housing with imminent risk of entering homelessness. In addition to the 142 adults, 52 children/dependents under the age of 18 were also identified. Recognizing that the experience of homelessness is unique in rural and northern communities, this enumeration project confirmed the prevalence of hidden homelessness with 57 percent of all survey respondents relying on temporary housing situations such as doubling-up or couch surfing scenarios in the homes of family and friends or in stays in motels/hotels when possible."


The report identified that the majority of people experiencing homelessness in Muskoka are between the ages of 24 and 54 (63 percent of respondents). Twenty of those respondents were youth under the age of 24 and 3 were seniors over the age of 65. Males (71) were more prevalent in the community of people experiencing homelessness than females (65.)


Of the 142 respondents identified as homeless, 63 people (44 percent) indicated that they had been homeless for 6 or more months in the past year. This means that 44 percent of the respondents met the definition of chronic homelessness, as defined by the Government of Canada.


This morning Toronto news stations reported that homeless shelters in the city are almost at capacity. Muskoka, however, can not provide those type of capacity numbers as we don't have adequate shelters for people. Heather Berg, founder of The Table Soup Kitchen Foundation, is in dire need of funding for the only Muskoka men's shelter. Berg makes it clear that there are no core grants and that the shelter is fully funded by donations.


Berg first opened the shelter in 2016 following a homeless men dying in a car fire as he had no where to go to stay warm. Will it take another human being dying senselessly on the streets of Muskoka for Muskoka politicians to wake up.


Berg has been ringing the alarm bell since spring regarding not being able to operate the men's shelter this upcoming winter season. She has been asking for funding from local donors to spending her summer months writing grant applications. While she is trying her best to prevent deaths this coming winter why are our fellow elected politicians not doing the same for a portion of their constituents.


Here is a breakdown of my morning's attempts at reaching your local Muskoka politicians regarding this issue. Granted they have only been given a few hours to respond but we are in the news business and are not willing to wait 24 hours for a response to an immediate public issue.


Muskoka Post posed the following question to Huntsville's acting Mayor Karin Terziano, who by the way has no direct phone or email contact but an assistant - we're still waiting for a call back, Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith, Muskoka Lakes Mayor Phil Harding, Councillor Nancy Alcock, who is the chair of the District's Housing Taskforce, and Gravenhurst Mayor Paul Kelly;


"As a member of district council could you please let me know if council is discussing or has at all in the last few months the status of the Huntsville men shelter at the Table Foundation. The shelter is ready to go and fully equipped but is in need of funds in order to operate this upcoming winter. Could you let me know if this is on council's radar for discussion on how to help the homeless in this region this winter and beyond given that today we are at -24 windchill. There is a local shelter hindered by lack of funds, has there been any outreach on behalf of the district to this organization that you are aware of?"


The following answers were provided:


Nancy Alcock; "It is my understanding that Heather has been working with District staff to come to an agreement with respect to some funding for the shelter. I’ll follow up with staff to see where these discussions are."


The following follow up question was also sent to her - "Where does Huntsville town council stand on talks for aiding the shelter?"


Alcocks answer: "I would direct you to Jackie Mattice at the District as she with her staff are currently updating the District’s 10 year housing and homelessness strategy. I believe this has been reported in your paper." Alcock is referring to Muskoka Region not Muskoka Post. However, here is the link to what Muskoka Post reported on the 10 year housing strategy which will take up to 10 years to fund and build.


As a councillor in the town which the shelter is located in and chair of the District Housing Taskforce I would expect her provide the answers as oppose to re-direct me to district for answers.


Alcock continues "You also asked about council’s support for the shelter and again I would direct you to previous reports from your paper during the last term of council when there was tremendous support for the shelter from our council. There was much opposition to it from some members of the community at the time when the application to amend the zoning by-law was before our committee to allow for the development of the men’s shelter. All members of council supported this application. All of this was reported in your paper at the time.

We have not had a presentation from Heather during this term of council."


Alcock's answer went from Berg being in discussion for funding with district to it seems Berg needs to provide a yearly presentation to be afforded support.


Paul Kelly sent in the following answer via email; "I don’t believe it has been brought forward to District Council although it could be on the upcoming agendas for next weeks meetings which have not been published yet." Kelly then reached out to Samantha Hastings at the district to provide us with further info.


Hastings has made her self available for questions.


The question was if councillors from different Muskoka municipalities have discussed the issue of shelters and homelessness in Muskoka with other councillors during meetings at both the district and municipal level ... by directing us to district staff for this answer - the answer by default is a clear no. Local politicians should be driving this issue and others onto town and district agenda's.


We have not yet heard from Terziano, Smith or Harding, as those comments become available we will update this article.


Since the publication of this article Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith has sent in his comment; "I am not part of the CPS (Community and Planning Services) committee which would typically deal directly with this issue. I do not recall a discussion at Council about that shelter directly, however it may have been discussed at committee. I know that the District does provide hotel vouchers and assistance to people that are seeking shelter when needed and works with various community partners to make this happen.

As for the homelessness enumeration, I am aware of the report and have read it. The recommendations within the report speak to broad goals and again these would be led by the appropriate committee. I did have a discussion with Ms. Hastings and she has indicated that they will be discussing emergency shelter information at next week’s CPS committee meeting."


So have there been discussions between Berg and the District? Here is what Berg had to say.


"Originally before we opened the shelter we had these discussions with the district and they did offer us funding options so we thought we had that support. Then it turned out that it was not going to happen ... that's what we had in place prior to opening and then they changed their minds. The conversations then centred around the fact that it would be cheaper for them to give us $25 a night for each of the guests instead of putting them up in motels."


Since that time there have been no further discussions with The Table men’s shelter regarding funding from the District of Muskoka.


The men's shelter requires paid staff to keep the doors open. Without funding this organization can not staff this necessary public service. The lack of staff has forced the Table Foundation to convert the shelter into a hostel for the time being therefore removing it as a homeless shelter.


"We can technically house homeless men but they have to go through a rigorous interview process and we are simply not able to accept every man that inquires,” Berg said.


Inquiries according to Berg come daily by the numbers.


"In order for us to re-open as a men's shelter we would need committed annual fundraising to pay for staff. With minimal staff we need $100,000 to $120,000 annually and that's not being opened 24 hours a day, it's just bare minimum," she said.


The Muskoka district and municipalities can not work in collaboration to provide some, if not all of this necessary funding for the only men's shelter in the region? A local, concerned resident has already done the leg work for the government and set up a working model for a shelter, is it too much to ask the district to support this initiative that is in place to save and help other human beings in need?


Berg can't answer that question, however, she feels that emergency housing has not been a priority.


"I feel that it is easier for the district to send people outside of our region to receive that kind of support instead of trying to figure out a sustainable solution for emergency housing ... to completely avoid and not give some priority to emergency housing is very unkind and irresponsible of our district," Berg said.


Currently if the The Table shelter guests are on OW or ODSP they are able to receive their housing portion to the hostel, however, shelter is not available for free.


The Homeless Enumeration report suggested that a service pathway can be created to help achieve housing directly from the outdoors. Has that been implemented? Once again we asked our panel of councillors form above but have not yet heard back on that particular question.


The report also indicates that the "quest to increase affordable, safe and attainable housing options will remain an important strategic priority in the future."


Another point of interest in the report was this statement; "Only 19 percent of people experiencing homelessness during the 2018 Enumeration identified staying in a shelter. The development of safe, housing focused shelter options will continue to be an important connection to permanent housing solutions in Muskoka."


If that's the case Berg has not been notified of any new developments which would connect her transition shelter to the districts permanent housing solutions.


Perhaps it's time to start spending less on writing reports and more on the action of funding local shelters like The Table Foundation. This crisis is not going away without actual strategies which involve more than just sitting around tables talking while turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room. Less relying on talking points and more transparency would also be a welcome change of pace from our local political base and some of its employees.

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