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Newmarket grappling with rise in homelessness, encampments

Mayor says no doubt summer marked "the highest level of homelessness in our community"
A sign posted at a Newmarket park in the summer. The town has said there were more homeless encampments experienced in town.

Newmarket resident Yalda Sarwar's daily commute has involved seeing more people experiencing homelessness of late.

Taking the GO train from Newmarket, she said she has noticed an upturn in the number of these individuals, particularly as colder weather comes in. 

The journalist said she has spent time talking to some of them, and seeing the increase has made her question and message government officials about what they are doing to address the situation. 

“The numbers have increased, the weather is getting worse, and this has been happening for years,” she said. “There has to be a way or a solution for this.” 

Newmarket leadership and homelessness organizations have reported more challenges dealing with issue in recent months as support has diminished compared to earlier in the pandemic.

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor said there was a noticeable rise in homelessness within the town over the summer.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we just experienced a summer with the highest level of homelessness in our community,” Taylor said, adding it was noticeable around town parks. “We live in very difficult times economically, both due to COVID and due to the global economy, and I think that’s putting more stress on people.” 

Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite said there is a rise in the number of “working poor” struggling to find places to live even while employed. 

“People are taking advantage of more people and more competition in the rental market. They’re able to charge more, pushing more people that might have been able to afford housing into a position where they can’t just afford it anymore,” he said.

A lack of housing supply and social supports are also an issue. He said whereas CERB — the federal government’s key benefit during the pandemic —helped boost things, it is tougher for some without that program available. He said Ontario Works, about $700 a month, and Ontario Disability, about $1,200 a month, cannot keep up. 

Finding affordable housing right now is difficult, Braithwaite said. He added that in speaking with Blue Door staff, they can only connect about 200 per year to affordable rentals versus the 400 they could manage a few years ago.

“The Region of York has added a lot of units, it’s just that the demand is so high," he said. "It’s become increasingly difficult to find that kind of affordable housing, long term, that’s dignified for our clients. We have to be very creative and innovative.”

Homelessness down in 2021, but no count yet for this year

The official tracking of homelessness is not reflecting an increase yet, however. York Region’s 2021 count, conducted in shelters, found 329 experiencing homelessness in the region. That was down from 389 people in 2018 and 263 in 2016, the other years that York Region did a count. 

“Despite a thriving economy, a number of individuals and families struggle to secure safe and affordable housing,” the opening to the report, written by York Region chairman and CEO Wayne Emmerson and United Way Greater Toronto president and CEO Daniele Zanotti, said. “Reasons for homelessness are varied and complex, often intersecting with other societal issues, including systemic discrimination and the growing gap between household income and the rising cost of housing.”

However, the report said to be wary of comparisons to previous years, given the methodology was different with fewer locations visited due to the pandemic. The count is also not an exact total, but rather would reflect the number of those in shelters at the time when the count was conducted.

The report found that eight per cent more homelessness, about 22 per cent, indicated being unable to pay for rent as a reason for their situation compared to 2018. The report also found an increase in the number of homelessness reporting mental health issues, at 64 per cent compared to 48 per cent in 2018. 

The report recommended doing more to address systemic inequalities given the rates of homelessness among marginalized groups, helping those experience homelessness to access income supports, and better systems integration between the homelessness services and other services. 

Encampments handled delicately, mayor says

With difficulties finding places to stay, some experiencing homelessness will turn to encampments. 

Taylor described more of them over the summer and receiving calls of concern from residents. He said Newmarket is far from the only town dealing with the issue. 

“There’s a lot of empathy toward those who are finding themselves struggling to that degree," he said, but added there were safety concerns with some of their locations. "People get frustrated with encampments right near their back fence.”

He said the town has worked with York Regional Police to remove encampments, but the situations have been handled “very delicately” with support offered. He said to his knowledge, encampment residents this summer have all moved voluntarily before the cleanup comes. 

“We will also work with people, offer them alternatives, bring support out, other agencies,” he said. “It needs to be non-threatening. It needs to be something where we’re here to help. We do want people living in a more sheltered and safe place. 

“The challenge grew significantly this summer and may be quite challenging next summer, but there are a number of steps we’re taking.” 

Braithwaite said encampments are reflective of the housing crisis. 

“Sometimes, people are going into encampments because they may feel the (shelter) spaces provided, they don’t feel safe there, or they don’t feel their needs are met,” Braithwaite said.

He added that a support-focused approach is critical when dealing with encampments versus a law-enforcement approach.

“You really want to make sure, 100 per cent, that you’ve gone in, focused on really working with individuals in encampments to do the best you can to connect them with services.” 

Addressing homelessness requires a more proactive methodology, Braithwaite said. He added that there needs to be more investment in preventing homelessness rather than just reacting to it.

Providing more affordable housing supply is also critical, he said. He added there needs to be partnership so that non-profits might be able to get more properties to develop affordable homes, rather than private interests doing so.

“The federal government needs to work with the provinces and the municipalities to develop an income stream, a stream where non-profits can actually work with municipalities to buy up those properties,” he said. 

Newmarket and York Region have made efforts toward developing more affordable homes, with a new complex to come on Bayview Parkway. The town and region have also supported a new headquarters and transitional housing being built by Inn From the Cold.

Addressing homelessness is doable but not easy, Taylor said. He described the need for a multi-pronged approach, including employment, mental health, housing challenges and increasing income supplements.

But he said he is hopeful about the progress.

“I’ve seen greater attention, interest and even progress over the last couple of years,” he said. “We’ve got quite a ways to go, but I really am proud of what Newmarket and York Region are doing." 

But Sarwar said there should be more resources dedicated to the issue, with enough specialized centres in every town or city that can take in those experiencing homelessness and provide everything they need.

There are enough resources in Canada to solve the problem, she said. 

“We have that capacity as one of the richest countries in the world,” she said. “We are known for that compassion, but why is that not seen when it comes to the homeless across the country? It’s what boggles my mind every single time.”