Housing advocates gather outside City Hall before a City Council meeting on October 26, 2020. Dan Hennessey (second from left) later spoke to Council about the need for a low-barrier shelter in Peterborough. (Photo: Will Pearson)
At least 61 individuals have received bans from Peterborough shelters during the coronavirus pandemic
Will Pearson  - 
October 30, 2020

On Monday, Peterborough’s City Council approved a plan to move the city’s overflow homeless shelter from Murray Street Baptist Church to the City-owned building at 210 Wolfe Street. 

The new shelter will have an increased capacity, and it will also expand its hours to be open 24-7. That means a significant increase in access for people who use the overflow shelter, which is intended for individuals who cannot use the other shelters in the system. The overflow shelter is currently only open at night, leaving many of its guests without a place to go during the day. 

But even with 24-7 availability at the overflow shelter, it’s not clear that everyone who is experiencing homelessness in Peterborough will have a place to go. 

That’s because for some individuals, service restrictions ban them from staying at the city’s shelters.

Through a freedom-of-information request, Peterborough Currents has obtained data regarding service restrictions in the city’s shelter system. The data shows that at least 61 individuals have received bans of varying lengths from Peterborough shelters during the coronavirus pandemic. (That number does not include individuals who received service restrictions as a COVID-19 precaution and were given a hotel or motel room to self-isolate.) 

The service restriction data came from the City’s HIFIS database, which tracks homelessness statistics and case management data for individuals accessing the shelter system. The Brock Mission, Cameron House, the overflow shelter, YES Shelter for Youth and Families and any hotels or motels that partner with the city to shelter people are included in the database. 

Altogether, those shelters had issued 259 service restrictions in 2020 as of September 13. At least 100 of those restrictions were for more than two weeks.

The City’s shelter system has averaged about 180 unique users per month in 2020, according to a recent city staff report.

The shelters have also been using service restrictions as a COVID-19 measure, to flag people who need to quarantine in a hotel or motel, for example. Service restrictions related to COVID-19 measures are not reported in this article, because the City says individuals who receive them are given a hotel or motel room in which to self-isolate. Peterborough Currents is making the City’s full response to the freedom-of-information request available here.

“Restricting services to an individual is at times the only option when dealing with a complex situation at an emergency shelter,” the City stated in its response to Peterborough Currents’s request for the data. The City also noted that service restrictions are temporarily suspended whenever an extreme weather alert is in effect, and the data suggests that bans are issued less frequently in the winter. 

Peterborough Currents sent additional questions to the City’s communications manager last week and again yesterday, but has yet to receive answers.

One shelter user, who wanted to be only identified by his first name, Brad, said earlier this month that he had been banned from the Brock Mission. He said he talked back to staff there in a way that was likely construed as verbal assault. Brad wasn’t clear how long his ban was for, but he said it “seems like” it was permanent. “I’ve been sleeping outside and it’s getting kind of rough,” Brad said. It’s “getting cold now.”

“Quite a lot” of people receive bans from shelters, Brad said. “There’s so many rules.”

The Brock Mission currently operates the overflow shelter on Murray Street, and according to the new plan it will continue to operate the overflow shelter once it moves to the new Wolfe Street location. 

Before City Council voted to approve the plan, Dan Hennessey, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, asked Council not to award the contract to the Brock Mission, in part because he says the shelter bans people too often.

“I just don’t feel the Brock Mission fits the need, when so many people are kicked out,” he told Council. “At the very least have strong City oversight.”

When asked by Coun. Kemi Akapo how the Brock Mission was selected to operate the new overflow shelter, the City’s commissioner of community services, Sheldon Laidman, said that there are few options for shelter providers in the city, and with winter coming the urgent timeline doesn’t allow for a request for proposals. He also pointed out that every shelter in the system has agreed on a common set of protocols regarding service restrictions, and so a different provider would be expected to follow those protocols, too.

Bill McNabb, executive director of the Brock Mission, says refusing service to an individual is “the last thing anybody wants to do from a shelter environment. [But] people are expecting some safety staying here so it’s kind of a balancing act.” 

According to McNabb, the majority of service restrictions issued at the Brock Mission are in response to violent behaviour. He believes this behaviour is often a result of clients’ mental health struggles. “It’s usually an individual beyond our capabilities to support because we don’t have any clinical staff,” he says. “We’re not resourced that way.” 

“Since the late 90s, shelters have been filling up across the province due to a lack of mental health services,” McNabb says. “It’s discouraging when we have to go to a service restriction.”

According to the data, the Brock Mission issued 214 service restrictions to 127 unique individuals between April 1, 2019 and September 13, 2020.

The protocols that guide city-funded shelters when issuing service restrictions rank behaviours on a scale of one to five according to severity. Level one includes behaviour like using substances on the premises and using discriminatory language, and can result in a two-hour ban. At the top of the scale is level five: “physical violence or attempt to physically harm staff.” A level-five service restriction lasts for at least 15 days, but can be as long as three months, depending on a shelter manager’s discretion.

According to McNabb, if an individual receives a restriction between level one and level four at the Brock Mission, they are still able to access the overflow shelter. A level-five restriction, however, results in a refusal of service at all of the city’s shelters. As of September 13, at least 44 level-five service restrictions had been issued by Peterborough shelters in 2020. 

In 2019, there were no level-five service restrictions issued, according to the data provided. Overall, the data suggests a trend towards more severe restrictions: the proportion of reported service restrictions that resulted in a ban of more than two weeks doubled between 2019 and 2020. 

That concerns Christian Harvey, the executive director of One City Peterborough, an organization that provides affordable housing to individuals who are exiting homelessness. “That’s a lot of people who are having to figure out different alternatives — often unsafe — for long periods of time,” he says.

Are there alternatives to banning?

Up until summer 2019, the city’s overflow shelter was operated by Warming Room Community Ministries (WRCM), a charity associated with St. John’s Anglican Church. 

The Warming Room described itself as a low-barrier shelter. As Harvey, who was then executive director of WRCM, explains, being “low-barrier” meant the shelter welcomed people who were under the influence of substances and people who were in psychosis. When challenges arose, “we would be as creative as possible before we went to exclusion,” Harvey says. “Exclusion was our last resort.”

When presented with the number of people who have recently received bans from Peterborough shelters, Harvey said, “That’s not low-barrier at all.”

The Warming Room’s contract with the City was terminated in 2019, and the Brock Mission assumed operation of the overflow shelter.

According to Harvey, the longest ban the Warming Room would issue was three days. He says three-day bans were rare and happened a handful of times, but one-night bans were a little more common. But their preferred technique for dealing with individuals who were making threats or being violent was to ask them to go for a walk to cool off, Harvey says. (The numbers obtained by Peterborough Currents do not include reliable data for the period when the Warming Room was operating.)

Harvey also says the shelter worked proactively with guests when they were in a stable mood to make a plan for how to respond if they later became agitated or aggressive. “Often, they’d help,” he says. “They’d be a part of working out, ‘If I show up drunk, don’t let me in.’” The Warming Room was sometimes able to accommodate individuals who had been banned from other shelters, Harvey says, “because what they needed was a non-policing way to engage with them.”

“If our only punishment is exclusion, then I think that causes all kinds of issues,” he says. 

At City Council on Monday night, Dan Hennessey supported the Warming Room model. “The relationship model that Christian Harvey had copied from other agencies really worked,” he said.

Hennessey believes that giving guests ownership and responsibility over shelter spaces is the key to keeping shelters safe without resorting to service restrictions. 

“I believe in a self-policing model,” he says. “When you get people to buy into it, then it gives them ownership. They feel like they belong.”

According to Caitlin Currie, the shelter manager at YES Shelter for Youth and Families, connecting clients to supports is also important. “We work closely with community partners to refer clients to support that can enable them to make choices that prevent service restrictions,” she writes. “YES staff are also trained on community resources so appropriate referrals can be made to services that offer mental health and addictions support.”

But that’s become more difficult during the pandemic. “COVID-19 has resulted in significant barriers in accessing mental health and additional supports in our community,” writes Currie. “Addressing this requires community-based response and accountability.”

“Creating a safe environment in shelter has become increasingly difficult through COVID-19, where we’ve seen a 75% increase in the severity of client needs,” she adds.

At YES, if a client receives a minor service restriction, staff allow them to complete the restriction in two 12-hour periods, so that they can still access the shelter at night, according to Currie.

Longer restrictions need to be served off-site, which in some cases means moving to the overflow shelter. But Currie points out that YES continues providing services to individuals while they are under a restriction, including providing food from the shelter’s food bank, helping with service-referrals, and providing support from an outreach worker. 

YES issued 53 service restrictions to 37 unique individuals between April 1, 2019 and September 13, 2020, according to the data.

What do shelter users themselves think? When asked how shelters could respond to some of the behavioural issues that sometimes lead to bans, Brad suggested giving people more space and private rooms. “I like to have my own space,” he said.

Hennessey agrees that giving guests more space could help address some of the issues that arise in shelters. “The whole shelter system needs to be redesigned where you’re not in a dormitory,” he says.

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