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Homeless problem will get worse: housing coordinator

By Tyson Leonard

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BELLEVILLE 18/10/12 - Reta Sheppard, a housing coordinator with the Hastings Housing Resource Centre, says affordable housing is the most immediate need to tackle homelessness in Belleville. Photo By Tyson Leonard.

The homelessness situation in Hastings is a growing problem and it’s likely to get worse next year, says a local housing coordinator.

This past Wednesday was the 19th annual UN designated International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Among other things, the day is meant to highlight the need to eliminate homelessness.

Reta Sheppard, a housing coordinator at the Hastings Housing Resource Centre, said in 2011 they saw 411 homeless people and 975 who were in crisis housing situation, meaning they were at high risk of being homeless.

“My largest concern right now is in January of 2013 there is going to be drastic cuts to the discretionary benefits within Ontario Works,” said Sheppard.

“This means people that are in unstable housing and are planning to move aren’t going to have the assistance of first and last months rent.”

Other benefits being cut are help for people falling behind on rent or hydro bills.

“So I foresee homelessness probably escalating, and in that case, more affordable housing would help to eradicate a lot of it, but I don’t foresee a lot of that happening in the future,” said Sheppard.

The Hastings Housing Resource Centre offers informational resources for people looking for shelter. The centre offers a list of available housing, assistance when applying for non-profit housing, and legal information for tenants and landlords.

The centre is a non-profit organization funded through Hastings county and the United Way.

Sheppard said Belleville doesn’t have enough affordable housing.

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines affordable housing as rent that costs up to 30 per cent of your income.

“Very, very, very, few places, if any, in the private market are 30% of your income to rent,” said Sheppard.

Sheppard said because of a lack of affordable housing, or geared-to-income housing, the waiting lists are lengthy. The lists are organized on a first-come-first-served basis, but exceptions are made for people leaving an abusive situation.

“So what the Housing Resource Centre tries to do is work with landlords to try and keep as low a cost on rental units as possible,” said Sheppard.

Sheppard said the centre works as free advertising for the landlords.

The centre’s most direct way to help people with housing needs is to set them up in a hotel or motel for a night. Sheppard said people in need can be set up in a room through the centre’s office or through an after hours toll-free call line run by the Salvation Army and Hastings county.

“There is quite a few different hotels within Belleville, Quinte West, and up in Centre Hastings and North Hastings that the county has talked to and are now aware of the circumstances,” said Sheppard.

“For the most part the hotel system probably addresses a lot of the need, but there is always people that slip through the cracks.”

Sheppard said the centre also works with several landlords that can offer an overnight place to stay for people in need.

“I know it’s not ideal but unfortunately it’s a quick fix to not being out in the street in the cold.”

From mid-November to mid-March the Salvation Army runs a ‘warm room’. At the room anyone can get a warm meal and information about housing options. The room is open seven days a week from 6p.m. to 10p.m.

The closest option Hastings has to a shelter is the three transitional houses the Canadian Mental Health Association runs. The houses offer 18 rooms that can be used for between three to six months.

A look at the solution

Homelessness is a problem in Belleville and it needs to be tackled, says an anti-poverty group.

Ivan Stoiljikovic, a member of the Kingston Coalition Against Poverty, has a wide range of experience working with the homeless from occupying abandoned buildings, preventing condominiums from being built, and fighting against landlords trying to evict tenant for unfair reasons.

Stoiljikovic said there’s a simple solution.

“Its as simple as transferring funds from the support for organizations such as Children’s Aid Society, the police, and the military and into social housing,” said Stoiljikovic.

The Kingston Coalition Against Poverty is a grass-roots organization that aims to eradicate poverty through advocacy. The coalition meets in Kingston on Tuesdays at 5:30pm and is completely volunteer run.

Christina Flynn, also a member of the coalition, has worked with the homeless for more than a decade.

Both said there needs to be a shift of priorities in government spending.

“There needs to be less focus on individual wealth and more focus on healthy communities,” said Flynn.

Flynn said Belleville needs a shelter but shelters are never a solution.

“Its not a solution, it’s a band-aid. The solution is safe affordable housing not shelters. Shelters are required and obviously necessary at this time but if you want to eradicate homelessness, give people homes,” said Flynn.

Stoiljikovic said all levels of government have the power to subsidize and build affordable housing.

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