Homelessness in West Nipissing has become an issue for local citizens as fears for the safety of people stuck out in the cold weather have mounted as temperatures dropped dangerously low. It’s not just a topic of discussion, it’s a real concern that has some people working on packages for the homeless while others lobby for a warming centre and an emergency low-barrier overnight shelter for men. There has been a considerable number of anecdotal stories, but the evidence of need, the actual numbers of people in West Nipissing who are homeless or in danger of being homeless remains undetermined. Elaine Ducharme, an outreach peer support worker with True Self, works in West Nipissing once a week on this very issue.
Ducharme, who lives in Sturgeon Falls but works out of North Bay, explains her role. “I come in once a week and I connect with the community members, trying to find where the homeless are, those living rough (camping out), homeless or at risk of being homeless.” She says the problem is getting worse for many as the cost of living rises, and West Nipissing is no different than other locales. “I started back in September, so I’m relatively new; I’m just forming connections with the people in the community and trying to establish rapport with the people that I find.”
If she comes across someone who identifies as homeless, “I would try to establish a rapport with them and try to find out where they are staying, to assess if there’s anything they need or any services they would require. For example, some of them don’t have warm clothing.” She collects suitable donated clothing, coats, snow pants, boots, extra socks, and delivers to the person who needs them. Sometimes the intervention is welcome, sometimes it is not. Many homeless people have other issues than lack of funds.
Ducharme explains, “That’s the thing with the building of rapport. As a side to being an outreach worker, I’m also a peer support worker.” She has lived the experience of homelessness herself so she has a different level of understanding. “I am able to meet them where they,” she says, referring to mental health and addiction issues. “Sometimes people find it easier to talk to somebody that’s been where they are. (…) There is no judgment.” As part of her outreach, “We provide harm reduction material, things like Narcan to prevent overdose… As well we do have fentanyl testing strips so they can put whatever they are having in some water, stick the strip in… A lot of things nowadays are spiked… that’s why they are having overdoses. Harm reduction is really important …especially in the vulnerable population where we see a lot of mental health and addiction issues.”
She sometimes has to transport homeless individuals to North Bay for shelter, especially when the temperature drops to dangerous levels. “That is mostly because there’s not very many services [in West Nipissing]. There’s no warming center, no soup kitchen, but they do have all those services in North Bay. So a lot of them end up in North Bay or in Sudbury… They don’t feel welcome, I guess, in their own community… They could also be from somewhere else, just drifting in…. But yeah, there’s not much here. We do have some community services like the Alliance Centre … but it’s not too much in the way of walk-ins… where people can just walk in and request services. So [True Self] tries to bridge that gap and tries and get them to a centre.”
She adds that when Sturgeon Falls had the soup kitchen, it was very helpful to just have a hot meal. COVID interrupted that endeavour.
Ducharme does not have any hard figures yet, being at her job for only 6 months. Right now, the focus is on immediate needs. It doesn’t help that many people hide themselves. For example, if someone is living rough in the bush surrounding town, they might not want anyone to find their encampment. “So I keep looking,” she says, and she would ask anyone who knows or suspects someone is in this situation to contact her at True Self, 705-474-4058. She adds that some individuals are in a trauma situation, some may have been sex trafficked. It’s part of her role to determine what is needed. “I’m just out here, just check to see if you’re OK, kind of wellness checks and kind of chit chat with them and try and see where they’re staying. I give them a flashlight, a blanket, a [snack bar]… whatever I can just to make their day a bit better, to have that feeling of being heard. …You can just listen and I think that helps them a lot just to hear them and express that empathy.”
Some people have been asking why the Municipality of West Nipissing isn’t taking a more active role in providing relief, especially when the temperature drops. Some of that criticism has been directed at the new Mayor and Council. Mayor Kathleen Thorne Rochon points out that council cannot solve this ongoing issue in 4 months. She acknowledges that many people are very passionate about the issue, noting that homelessness will not be solved overnight, and that people are upset that “liability issues” seem to be an excuse for not doing anything. However, the liability issues are real – the municipality cannot simply open a space. “In the case of opening our facilities for people in need, the fact is as soon as we do that, we assume custody of them and as soon as we assume custody, we assume responsibility.”
If someone trips and falls, if someone overdoses, and a lawsuit ensues, the taxpayer is on the hook. “We are not a Social Services agency. Our staff does not have the qualifications to supervise or deal with complex mental health and addiction issues that are prevalent in many of the people who are in that situation,” the mayor states. She notes the municipality expends a large sum towards the District of Nipissing Social Services Administration Board for these services. Additionally, the details just aren’t there. Are there 20 homeless people? Ten? Six? Would the numbers warrant a low-barrier facility in this area? “Yes, we do have people who need those services, but we don’t have the critical mass that means a facility in this community is viable. Some of it comes down to the way Northern Ontario is managed as far as delivery of social services… If the municipality funds 34% of Mental Health [for example] …Housing and Child and Family Services, anything that falls under the Social Services umbrella, it is delivered by Social Service Administration Boards, because it’s meant to serve a much wider region.”
Thorne Rochon says West Nipissing pays $3.2 million to DNSAAB, funding meant to cover housing, homeless shelters, mental health programs, a whole range of services. “DNSAAB is the service provider because they have the expertise, because they have the programs that they can roll out to a large geographic area… Quite frankly the center for services for our municipality is in North Bay; we do not have capacity here. …Not only do we not have the capacity, but we also don’t have the demand… Is there a way to provide emergency service, when we have extreme cold weather? Probably. Is it through the municipality? Probably not. It’s probably through community groups. It’s probably through not-for-profits.”
In the meantime, what are the options for people out in the cold in West Nipissing? The Mayor advises that people “call the Crisis Center hotline and DNSSAB will pay for a cab or refer to the correct services. Or, they will triage over the phone and figure out what to do for that specific person, but that is the limit to the service that we have available in this community now, and that is the structure that, as a current Council, we were left with. We’re three months in. [We are] having a presentation or delegation by DNSSAB scheduled for March 21st, where they will come and provide a better overview both for us as a Council, but also the community at large, on what services they provide and how they provide them and what we get for the money that we contribute.”