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Wanted: affordable new home for Newmarket's homeless shelter

Faced with skyrocketing rents, insufficient funding, the dilemma facing the Inn from the Cold shelter mirrors that of other renters in York Region

Changing Lives: This is the first of a regular series about the human issues challenging our town and the people and agencies who are transforming lives, changing directions, inspiring kindness and finding solutions.

Newmarket’s homeless shelter, Inn from the Cold, may itself be without a roof over its head when its lease expires in 2021, has learned.

Faced with skyrocketing rents and a lean budget, the shelter’s dilemma of finding a new, affordable home mirrors that of countless others who, in recent years, have been squeezed out of the rental market in York Region.

The new year will find the shelter’s board of directors “getting its ducks in a row” and building a case to support a capital campaign for a new home.

“We’ve got some time to find a new, permanent home and, ideally, we’d like to stay central, to where clients can walk. We want to stay in Newmarket,” shelter executive director Ann Watson said.

Come Nov. 1, the rent that’s due on its current facility at 510 Penrose Ave. will cost 40 per cent more than the same time two years ago. The shelter was given a reprieve on the rent for one year, but Watson said it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a charity to pay market rent.

“It’s expensive and there’s a lot of competition for the same funding dollars,” she said.

York Region mortgage broker Larry Barnes said property values have gone up substantially and, in his experience, owners and landlords are trying to get fair market rent.

“With commercial properties, there’s no Landlord and Tenant act, tribunals or recourse. All you can do is negotiate,” Barnes said.

According to its 2017 annual report, the shelter’s yearly occupancy costs are $72,531, up from $47,150 the previous year. Community donations and fundraising were up, at $356,984, but so were groceries and supplies, insurance, interest and bank charges, telephone, utilities, taxis and bus tickets. Government funding and shelter salaries were all on the decline.

All in, the shelter last year took home $659,167, including $62,100 in new funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. But still more than half of the total operating budget comes from individual donors and small community organizations.

Last month, for example, 18-year-old photographer Leah Denbok mounted a photography exhibition at Old Town Hall which, she hoped, would help humanize the homeless and tell their stories for posterity. The college student, who spent time photographing clients at Inn from the Cold, is donating $90 to the shelter from the sales of that show, along with the royalties from her fourth photography book.

On Thursday, a photograph posted to a local Facebook group of two men sleeping on a storefront sidewalk at Main and Davis sparked debate.

Group members and several municipal election hopefuls all chimed in to answer the question posed by the poster: This is Main and Davis this a.m. If elected, what will you do for these residents? They don’t own a home, therefore, they don’t pay taxes. Will you represent them? How? Thanks for caring.

One thing was clear from the comments: It’s going to take more than lip service to address the growing issue of homelessness.

Recent statistics kept by the shelter back that up.

“We’ve had a 55-per-cent increase in people using the shelter in the 2017-2018 season,” Watson said.

Once you lose your housing, it’s exceedingly difficult to get back in, said Watson. Over time, there’s little income, credit record, or landlord references. For the chronic homeless, mental health issues prevent them from likely ever securing their own housing or using shelter facilities.

“Homelessness is all-consuming and it seems impossible for people to move forward with their life,” Watson said. “It’s remarkable how much trauma people experience. It’s profound, if you were born into the circumstances that some people face, you wouldn’t end up differently.”

Looking ahead, the shelter board hopes to find a new location in the area bounded by Yonge Street to the west, Davis Drive to the north, Leslie Street to the east, and Mulock Drive to the south. And it must be able to accommodate one of the shelter’s new programs in particular, Stability Now.

“That’s the program that changes lives,” Watson said, of its transitional housing program launched in February that helps the homeless secure a place of their own. “It’s had tremendous success. Three of the original tenants have found housing and are maintaining it.”

Funding was secured from eight donors to launch Stability Now. With $42,000 in seed money, part of the Penrose Avenue building was renovated into a self-contained, four-bedroom apartment with a shared kitchen and private bathroom. The tenants pay modest rent based on their income, and are supported by a wide variety of programs to help them move out and and become self-sufficient.

Watson said that life-changing impact would not have been possible without the financial support of Tom and Kate Taylor, Central York Professional Fire Fighters Association, CUPE Local 905, Bell Canada, Canadian Tire Newmarket, Tim Hortons Newmarket, and a family who wishes to remain anonymous.

Newmarket’s seasonal shelter for both male and female clients provides 38 beds for overnight stays seven days a week from November to April, months that can be inhospitable to those who live outdoors. In that, it is true to its roots.

On a winter’s day in 2004, the Town’s then-mayor Tom Taylor took a call asking where the homeless could go when emergency shelters were full and the day was cold. That led to the eventual opening of a warming centre at Old Town Hall when the temperatures dipped below -15C. Town staff and local politicians served hot drinks on bitterly cold nights. Community volunteers offered up help and, soon, Newmarket Community Church and Trinity United Church opened their doors to those without a home to call their own.

Today, Inn from the Cold has evolved into a year-round drop-in where 20 to 30 homeless and those at-risk of homelessness drop in three days a week. Volunteers prepare homemade, hearty, and high-calorie meals, supply such things as personal care items, clothing, backpacks and sleeping bags, all donated by the community. Clients can use the facility’s showers, do laundry, get a haircut, talk to a health care professional.

“As we try to identify our future needs, if we can continue to grow Stability Now, that’s definitely the direction the organization needs to go in,” Watson said. “We still need to shelter and take care of the chronic homeless, the guys and girls that just don’t fit in anywhere. They’re important and they need our help. They’re still someone’s kid, and mostly, they are someone’s dad.”

For more information on Inn from the Cold, to donate or volunteer, visit here here