United Way of Peel Invests in Homelessness Intervention Strategy

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It's no secret that when it comes to poverty and even homelessness, Peel is facing a mounting crisis. Although the relatively prosperous region -- one that contains Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon -- is, for all intents and purposes, a thriving and growing economic engine brimming with vibrancy and diversity, its dramatic growth has spurred an increase in poverty and the region and community organizations are desperately trying to get in front of the issue.

While there's been talk aplenty about affordable housing and homelessness reduction strategies, some organizations are investing cold, hard cash in tackling the problem.

"At our annual general meeting, we announced that we're investing $1.9 million to reduce homelessness in our community," says Shelley White, president and CEO at United Way of Peel. "It's a growing need in our community, which has grown significantly since 1980. Mississauga has gone from being a sleepy suburb to the sixth largest city in Canada. In 1980, two per cent of households were considered low income. Now, 45 per cent are low income."

Last year, over 14,000 people -- including close to 4,000 children and youth -- used homeless shelters and transitional housing. As of now, there is not enough support infrastructure available for people who are seeking shelter, but the inadequate resources are, it seems, getting adequate attention.

"There is significant need for increased crisis intervention, interim supports and long term prevention strategies," White says. "The $1.9 million provides access to emergency shelter, supports those in shelters to secure stable housing and prevents people from falling into homelessness in the future. This is a start. There is more to do - today and over the medium and long term."

In Peel, homelessness is difficult to tackle in part because it's often invisible. There's immense shame associated with extreme poverty and people will often hide their circumstances from friends, family and the overall community. In many situations, poverty and homelessness are the result of mental illness, addiction and domestic abuse.

As for why poverty is increasing, the disturbing trend has a lot to do with Peel's population boom and an increase in demographics vulnerable to financial strain.

"In 2007, Peel did an analysis and found that segments vulnerable to poverty were growing," White says. "Those segments include visible minorities, immigrants, seniors, people with disabilities and single parents. These are the fastest growing segments and [a lot] of seniors are on fixed incomes and it's particularly hard for single seniors, so we're seeing an increase in homelessness among [that demographic]."

Youth homelessness is also an issue and Peel, at this juncture, cannot provide enough transitional housing for displaced young people.

"We know a significant number of youth are homeless," says White. "We had to turn away 450 young people at the Our Place Peel youth shelter [in Mississauga] last year because we only have 14 beds and our occupancy rate is over 90 per cent. Most of the youths in the shelter come from Brampton, where there is no youth shelter [at the moment]."

Fortunately, Brampton is working to address the issue. Mayor Linda Jeffrey and city council supported United Way's call to set up an interim youth shelter in the city. Come September (ideally), a temporary 30-bed shelter will open up in Brampton. The shelter will, ideally, free up space in Mississauga's facility and provide assistance to troubled youth closer to home.

But while it's important to provide assistance to people in need, prevention is also crucially important.

"For youths, if they have access to counseling and can tell someone that they're in a dangerous situation, that helps," says White. "Programming can also help parents and children overcome communication challenges. [We also need more] alcohol and substance abuse treatment programs so people [with addiction issues] don't lose their homes or jobs. We also need more support for people and families affected by mental illness and better treatment programs for people who are suffering. We also need programs to help people deal with job losses. What programs can we put in place to ensure people affected by layoffs and company closures, especially people who are 50 and 60 years old, keep their homes?"

While it'll take some time to design and implement social programs, it's heartening to know that some organizations, along with government and corporate partners, are working to make improvements right now. Case in point: Brampton's willingness to immediately begin work on an interim shelter for troubled youth.

White also said that all levels of government seem interested in tackling issues in Peel.

"The Region has indicated to us that they're keen to work with us and other partners on on-the-ground solutions to preventing and reducing homelessness," she says.

Back in May, the United Way of Peel convened a meeting with representatives from community groups and all levels of government to discuss homelessness and affordable housing. The meeting was held to drive home the point -- which most people are or should be aware of -- that Peel needs special attention. The region has one of the longest subsidized housing wait lists in Canada. Right now, there are over 12,000 people waiting for housing, with an average wait time of 5.3 years.

Although the issue is difficult (and contentious), people are coming to the table to talk.

"The region is doing all sorts of innovative things to increase people's access to safe, sustainable housing. The federal and provincial governments need to invest more money in preventing homelessness and providing access to affordable housing in Peel. There's more that needs to be done and the community can be tremendous advocates for us with the federal and provincial governments. Housing is fundamental. It helps people get and maintain employment, or, if they're younger, to stay in school."

But will the talk turn to action? White is hopeful.

"I have to say I'm optimistic because there's alignment among us and our government and community partners in tackling this. But we can't wait 10 or 15 years. This is urgent. We need to see action over the next three to five years."

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