Newsletter: Checking in with the One City outreach team

United Way-funded outreach initiative aims to support individuals who are sleeping outside this winter

You’re reading the March 9, 2021 edition of the News & Updates email from Peterborough Currents. To receive these emails straight to your inbox, sign up here.

Good morning, and welcome to the News & Updates email from Peterborough Currents.

Back in January, I wrote about a new outreach initiative launched by One City Peterborough with funding from the local branch of the United Way.

One City is a charity that supports people who are experiencing homelessness and poverty in Peterborough.

Late last year, United Way Peterborough granted One City $40,000 to run a 4-month outreach pilot this winter to connect with people who are primarily living outside, either because they’ve been banned from local shelters or because they choose not to use them.

Jim Russell, CEO of United Way Peterborough puts it bluntly when he explains why the United Way funded this initiative: “We didn’t want people to die.”

“Shelters aren’t homes,” Russell continues, “but in many cases, they’re safe havens against frostbite and death living outside.” For those who don’t use the shelters, severe weather poses a significant risk, Russell says.

The outreach initiative is intended to distribute outdoor survival gear and keep connected with people who are living outside in case there’s anything else they need to stay safe and supported.

I followed up with the team at One City to learn how the initiative is going now that it’s been running for a few months.

“When there’s no one looking, then people get forgotten”

When I last spoke to One City’s executive director Christian Harvey in January, the charity’s new outreach initiative had just gotten underway. They were still working out what the best model would be for connecting with people in a way that was respectful. For example, Harvey wanted to find a way to check in at people’s campsites to offer support without compromising people’s privacy and invading their space.

In the last two months, that particular concern has become less of an issue, Harvey says, because they have found that most of the people they’re engaging with aren’t camping in a single place. Harvey attributes this to the bylaw prohibiting camping in public places that was passed in 2019. “There’s a lot of fear around the bylaw,” he says, “and people are getting moved from their campsites.”

“So the idea of checking in on people’s campsites didn’t end up happening as much just because people aren’t able to stay in campsites.”

Harvey says the team knows of about 12 people who are sleeping outside, moving from stairwells to bank lobbies and sometimes tenting. Some are also sleeping in vehicles, he says.

David Stewart is one of three members of the outreach team. At first, a typical day would involve “going downtown with a thermos, with gloves, with hand warmers, and just meeting people and introducing ourselves and offering something that’s useful,” he says. “Nutrition and a bit of human connection seems to really go a long way.”

But the team soon realized that with downtown virtually shut down due to the pandemic, people experiencing homelessness were spread out throughout the city, and so they started driving to locate other individuals who might benefit from support, Stewart explains.

And Stewart says now that they’ve built relationships with a number of clients, people are often coming to them to seek help with tasks like searching for an apartment or navigating health care services. “So the days more recently seem to be filled with a lot of appointments, diving deeper into specific people’s needs,” he says.

Despite having formed these relationships, Stewart worries sometimes that the team is missing some individuals. Some people who are living outside “have been asked and told to move on and fined so many times over the winter that I can’t find them anymore,” he says.

Students from PACE contributed some winter clothing for the One City outreach team to distribute earlier this month. (Photo via One City’s Facebook page)

Stewart also struggles with what sometimes feels like the inadequacy of what the team is able to offer. Supporting individuals to live outside isn’t a long-term solution to homelessness, after all. “Everybody says to me they need housing.”

“To be honest, some days the work doesn’t feel important because it’s not what people express they need,” Stewart says. But on other days, clients tell Stewart how much they appreciate what the team is able to provide.

“So I’m left feeling somewhat torn,” Stewart reflects. “I feel good about being able to be there for people and witness what people are experiencing. But it’s heartbreaking to know that outreach isn’t [the same as] providing housing and a living income for people.”

To Harvey, it’s about being a witness and making sure that no one is overlooked. “We know that people are getting pushed underground,” he says. “And when there’s no one looking, then people get forgotten.”

“As an organization, we want to keep reminding the community that people are still out there. People are still sleeping outside.”

Twice this winter, once in January and once in February, bodies have been found along the train tracks in the south end of the city. The Peterborough Examiner reports that the body found in January was in a location used as a campsite by people living rough.

Neither Russell or Harvey are certain whether those individuals were experiencing homelessness when they died, but Harvey suspects as much.

“I think there have been fatalities as a result of homelessness this year,” he says.

New stories on our website

Accessory dwelling units

Three years after the City legalized secondary suites, including backyard dwelling units, I checked in to see whether the new rules have encouraged this kind of housing development in Peterborough.

Record Production Month Challenge

13 local musicians produced records in the month of February as part of the Record Production Month Challenge. Looking for some new local music to listen to? Here’s our guide to the 13 records.

Other news

  • The province moved Peterborough’s public health region into the “Red-Control” level of COVID-19 restrictions yesterday, after an outbreak at Severn Court Student Residence greatly increased the number of active cases in the region. Here’s Peterborough Public Health’s guide to what the new restrictions mean.
  • After being cancelled last year, the annual Seedy Sunday event returns in a virtual format this Sunday. Gather online to get ready for spring with a series of gardening workshops and a chance to swap and purchase seeds. More information here.

Photo of the week

Photographer Jay Callaghan of CalTek Design photographed this owl in Peterborough County over the weekend. Visit Callaghan’s website here.

Owls of all kinds appear to be much more prevalent in the region this winter compared to previous years, according to naturalist Drew Monkman, who wrote about owls in his latest column.

That’s all for this week’s newsletter. Thanks so much for reading, and take care!

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