A city staff proposal to use vacant Peterborough Housing Corporation (PHC) units as temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness this winter will not replace the need for an overnight drop-in centre, according to One City co-executive director Christian Harvey.
City staff last month scuttled a plan to grant $200,000 toward an overnight winter drop-in centre at the former Trinity United Church, arguing that council couldn’t legally spend the money during a so-called lame duck period before October’s municipal election.
But staff have said they are working on an alternative: using vacant PHC units as temporary housing for some people experiencing homelessness this winter.
“There are some vacant units at PHC right this minute and one option is to house persons directly from shelters that might be suitable to be housed in those units,” community services commissioner Sheldon Laidman said at a special council meeting last month.
The public housing provider has kept some units vacant in anticipation of a planned redevelopment of PHC properties, Laidman said.
He told council that staff are also looking at other options to address homelessness this winter, such as potential increases to some services, though he didn’t say which ones.
Peterborough Currents asked Laidman for more details about the PHC plan, including how many people it would shelter, but did not hear back.
But Harvey expressed doubt that Laidman’s proposal would help as many people as a drop-in centre, which he said could accommodate at least two dozen people per night.
“It will be for a minimum amount of people,” he said of the PHC proposal. “That doesn’t mean that’s not worth doing… but the amount of people outside is so great that we have to find some way to [support them using] a harm reduction approach.”
25 people per night used drop-in centre last winter
When One City ran an overnight drop-in centre last winter, with funding from the United Way, an average of 25 people used it every night, Harvey said.
The space had a capacity of only 15, but people volunteered to rotate out every few hours to allow others to come inside.
“People would often say, ‘oh, there’s someone at the door, I can go out for a couple hours,’” Harvey said. “That was amazing.”
He said the program “definitely saved lives,” which is why one is needed again this winter.
The drop-in centre was also “low barrier,” meaning that people would not be turned away for being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he said.
It’s an approach that focuses on harm reduction, instead of imposing “punitive consequences” for things like drug use, Harvey said.
For example, people who use drugs were asked to do so outside – and they were encouraged to let staff know when they did so they could check on them, he said.
Some people used drugs in the washroom nonetheless, but when that happened, staff’s focus was on keeping them as safe as possible, not punishment.
“When someone goes in the washroom we’re checking after five minutes, after 10 minutes,” he said.
He said that although people were sometimes under the influence, “that didn’t mean that violence was condoned by any means.” Staff were trained in de-escalation, he said.
City opposes low barrier model, Harvey says
City staff have made it clear that they are not supportive of the low barrier model, according to Harvey, so it’s unlikely that the proposal to use vacant PHC units to shelter people this winter would adhere to that philosophy, he said.
City CAO Sandra Clancy raised liability concerns about the low barrier approach at last month’s special council meeting, where the outgoing city council debated whether to fund the drop-in centre but ultimately did not vote on the matter.
“The City’s seen as the big party that’s involved with the biggest pockets and if something was to happen we would definitely, I would say, be at risk of something coming back on us,” Clancy said.
The United Way was able to fund last year’s drop-in centre thanks to a one-time federal grant that isn’t available this year, according to United Way Peterborough and District CEO Jim Russell.
Russell said, with dozens of people sleeping outside in Peterborough every night, the need for a space for people to warm up has not gone away this year.
He pointed to a United Way survey that found that on a single night last December, 82 people were either sleeping outside or in cars, or didn’t know where they would sleep. All homeless shelter beds for adults in the city were full on the night of the survey, according to the United Way.
“Clearly there’s a need,” Russell said.
The United Way was one of several local organizations that banded together to plan another drop-in centre for this winter, which was to be run by One City, Russell said. He said it’s “lost on us completely” why City funding is “not in play anymore.”
He said city staff’s proposal to instead use empty PHC units to house people won’t “entirely” make up for the need for a drop-in space.
The group that had been planning for one continues to meet, but they are unsure of their next steps now that the City has refused funding, Harvey said. “We’re, I think, at a bit of a loss right now,” he said.
Harvey said they will “continue to push” for more help for people living outside this winter once the newly elected city council takes office on November 15.
But he said it’s getting “later and later” for One City to “pull off” setting up a drop-in centre.
As the nights get colder, Harvey said he worries about the “desperation” that will ensue when people are cold all the time – and potential spikes in drug poisonings “because people are just trying to get through stuff.”
His biggest fear if nothing is done to help the most vulnerable get through the winter? “It’s that… more people are going to die.”