Pandemic shows true picture of homelessness in Kawartha Lakes

By Denis Grignon

Pandemic shows true picture of homelessness in Kawartha Lakes
Less couch surfing happened after COVID-19, exposing the area's homelessness challenge.

On the surface, it would seem that the pandemic created a surge in homelessness in Kawartha Lakes. Indeed, A Place Called Home did see its client base increase three-fold since COVID, says its interim executive director, David Tilley.

As reported in The Advocate earlier this week safety protocols at the start of the pandemic lead to the closure of the agency’s 19-bed shelter. This meant relocating those residents – and any new, additional ones – into local motels. Since then, the agency is consistently providing rooms for between 45 and 55 individuals.

Dave Tilley. Photo: Jamie Morris.

But really, Tilley points out, COVID just drew the curtain on the plight of homelessness that already existed in the community – but was previously hidden.

“In many ways,” says Tilley, “what we’re seeing in terms of numbers is a much more accurate reflection of what homelessness is in our region…the people in precarious situations….the hidden homeless.”

Pre-COVID, those “precarious situations” were easier to accommodate, he says, citing APCH’s practice to offer shelter only as a last resort. “When every (other) avenue is exhausted,” he says.

Typically, those avenues included providing food baskets to clients, which could buy them extra time on a friend or family member’s couch.

But, says Tilley, these individuals were still, essentially, homeless. And now, that couch was no longer available to them, either.

People were reluctant to offer shelter in the wake of strict, stay-at-home directives and physical-distancing.

“The pandemic has created such a level of fear that (crashing with friends) has become untenable,” Tilley says.

And the ripple effect is being felt, and managed, by the social agency, which set up administrative offices on site at the temporary shelter. There is extra staff, around the clock on site for what Tilley describes as, “any issues that pop up.” The new, temporary housing model presents challenges, concedes Tilley.

“Many of our clients don’t do well in isolation,” he explains, adding that APCH’s main site allowed for easier congregating of clients. “They’re very social individuals.”

That, for example, can lead to situations, “where addictions were exacerbated…especially in the early days (of the pandemic).”

“COVID had a huge negative impact on mental health.”

Still, evictions were extremely rare, Tilley points out, as clients slowly came to accept their new reality. “The stress level seems to (now) be reduced.”

Neither did the agency experience any outbreak in its temporary housing – something Tilley admits surprised him. “I anticipated that we would see some presence of the virus come through,” he says, adding that APCH started exercising its own safety measures before the province’s official shut down. “But we were very fortunate.”

Where he had hoped to see progress, though, is in the number of clients APCH currently serves. The flow of people moving out of its care is soon replaced by an equal number experiencing homelessness entering it.

“That number has not declined in a way that I would have really hoped they would have by now.”

A few clients, he says, did apply and receive the federal government’s assistance, CERB, while others are drawing provincial disability payments – but are still unable to secure a rental apartment, “which is few and far between…historically, housing has been a real challenge in our area.”

So far, APCH has been meeting its new pandemic-related challenges and looking forward to major renovations to its Lindsay Street facility, which will see its bed space about double. Construction is anticipated to start next April.

For now, though, it remains to be seen how far beyond the current number of clients the agency can serve – should it have to.

Tilley will only say it’s hard to put a cap on it.

“It comes down to cost and hotel availability. We’re trying to keep (the client numbers) at 45 to 55. And so far, we’ve been successful in doing so.”

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