Peterborough has a housing crisis and a shelter emergency. Downtown, it can seem both hidden and to be staring you right in the face, underlining just how complex this crisis is. Just as the solutions to homelessness are complex, so are the populations who identify under this umbrella.

Many of the people we see living in dire poverty are not in fact homeless the way much of society conceptualizes what it means to be homeless. I spoke with Dan, a man who is often perceived as homeless, who explained to me that he has always had a place to live. Dan went on to elaborate: “There are people out there who need a few extra bucks every day. By the time I pay my rent and buy a few groceries, I’m broke.”

His living conditions are far from ideal as he shares a small two-bedroom apartment with a roommate with whom he does not get along. But Dan doesn’t have the luxury of choosing where he lives; his options are limited to housing that he can afford through panhandling and other ways of supplementing his income. Dan is part of a subset of the population making between $0 and $20 388 annually that spend over 75% of their incomes on shelter alone. On a broader scale, there are 2640 households in Peterborough that spend more than 50% of their incomes on rent and utilities. This leaves little funding for other basic needs such as food and clothing, let alone the activities that add pleasure and fulfillment to our lives.

City Council meeting at Peterborough City Hall, November 22, 2017. Photo by Nick Taylor.

These figures are not as shocking when you consider the fact that Peterborough ranks #1 in Canada for highest core housing need among metropolitan census areas. I attended a City Council Budget Meeting on November 22 where various members of the community that work to ameliorate the housing crisis in Peterborough gathered to demand action from the city. Various solutions were proposed to address the housing crisis in the long term, namely the development of affordable housing and investment into the rent supplement program in Peterborough. Currently 1406 people are waiting to be deemed eligible for support from the rent supplement program to bridge the gap between low incomes and the inflated costs of housing, but with housing costs seemingly perpetually on the rise, this number is likely to grow in the coming years. Pressure on the municipal government is needed to ensure that this investment takes place so that the number of individuals “living rough” does not also grow in the coming years.

“Living rough” refers to people who are forced to live outdoors, often in makeshift shelters, with no relief from cruel external conditions. These are the people who we as a society typically define as homeless. Unfortunately, in Peterborough there is a large population of these people forced to live rough. Exact figures are often difficult to grasp because these populations are living on the extreme margins of our society, constantly moving and often unseen, making them difficult to count and track. Evidence of this community’s size can often only be understood through the demands that local shelters face.

Currently in Peterborough, there are several emergency shelters that attempt to meet the needs of a broad range of diverse homeless populations. The Brock Mission is a shelter with 40 beds that is exclusively for men. Cameron House has a 10-bed capacity and houses women who need shelter. The Youth Emergency Shelter on Brock street is open to youth and families in need of a place to stay. The Warming Room is a shelter open only during the winter months for those who have no refuge from the bitter cold. Crossroads is a shelter available to women fleeing violence; and although it does not have a mandate of housing homeless women, many homeless women seek refuge there due to the heightened risk of physical and sexual violence that these women face. On National Housing Day (November 22), all of these shelters were operating at or over capacity. This means that for some, sleeping outdoors in -10°C weather will be the only option this winter.

This is Peterborough’s shelter emergency. The need for shelters is dire, but it’s important to note that shelters are a short-term solution to a long-term, systemic issue. In the words of Kathy Hardill, a nurse practitioner who specializes in treating the homeless, “We often hear that we must choose between funding shelter and funding affordable housing. This is a dangerous notion.” We need shelters, but we also need investment in affordable housing and rent supplements. We need to come together as a community to address homelessness comprehensively, in both the present and the future.

One organization striving to ameliorate the complex issues our most vulnerable populations face is the One Roof Community Centre. Located near the intersection of Brock and Water, One Roof’s mandate is to focus on the issue of food insecurity — a significant issue in the city of Peterborough, where 1 in 6 people struggle with food insecurity, the highest rate in Ontario. One Roof provides free meals on a daily basis and a broad range of services such as haircuts, culinary training sessions, Hepatitis C testing, bingo and euchre tournaments, as well as a weekly Nurse Practitioner-led clinic. It not only addresses food insecurity, but it also creates a safe space for the most vulnerable to feel socially included. Rachel Petty, the Program Coordinator for One Roof Community Centre, spoke to this sense of community within One Roof: “We really strive to operate on what we call a relational model… which is about making relationships and hearing people’s stories.”

It’s important to note that these conversations can go beyond shelters or community centres. They can take place on the streets, where homeless populations are most vulnerable to discrimination. Not everyone can volunteer in shelters or community centres, but everyone can show compassion. Rachel Petty went on to say that “the best thing anyone can do is take five minutes to hear someone’s story. I think that is what gives us compassion and allows us to do perspective taking. It’s those relationships and direct experiences which change people’s outlooks.”

This sentiment is not unique to Rachel Petty. During my conversation with Dan, the man previously referred to in this article who is often perceived as homeless, he told me that approximately 25% of the people he politely greets outside of the LCBO completely refuse to acknowledge his existence. When I asked what we, as a society can do, he said “If people are going to be respectful to you, be respectful back. You don’t have to give me money, but at least acknowledge my existence.”

Of course, this is not a solution to our housing crisis or shelter emergency, but a little bit of compassion can go a long way for someone who may be battling physical and sexual violence, mental health and addiction issues, chronic health problems, on top of what is often perennial poverty. So, the next time someone approaches you on your way to FreshCo. or the LCBO, regardless of whether or not you have any change, treat them with the respect they deserve. Do not walk past them with an icy look on your face, indifferent to their suffering; exchange some kind words, look them in the eye and treat them like the human beings they are.

To learn more about how you can volunteer with One Roof or related programs, click here.