The Kenora District Services Board says they have plans to end chronic homelessness across northwestern Ontario within a generation.

“I feel very confident that we will end homelessness in communities like Kenora within this generation,” said Chief Administrative Officer for the KDSB, Henry Wall, in an interview with Q104 and KenoraOnline.

His comments come after the release of the board’s 2021 Homeless Enumeration Report, a point-in-time, one-day count of homeless individuals in each of the nine municipalities in the Kenora district, who all agreed to share their stories.

“We all want to belong. We all want to have a home that we feel safe in, that we can afford. We don’t have to over-complicate this, but we need to have housing stock and we need to give our young people hope that tomorrow and the future are going to be better than what they have today.”

“When we do that, we can turn a challenge that has griped communities like Kenora for generations, we can end this within a generation,” explained Wall.

The KDSB’s report shows that staff found a total of 221 northwestern Ontario residents who self-identified as homeless. They include 121 in Kenora, 37 in Dryden, 36 in Sioux Lookout, 15 in Red Lake, 8 in Pickle Lake and 4 in Ignace.

That’s a drastic drop from the KDSB’s 2018 study, which reported a total of 393 homeless individuals. Wall says that can be directly linked to community organizations creating new partnerships together.

“If there’s anything we’ve seen from 2018 to now, it’s the fact that within our communities, people are starting to work together,” said Wall. “Organizations are starting to pool resources and are acknowledging that homelessness is complex, and that we all need to work together.”

However, Wall noted 2018’s numbers were measured in a slightly different way. Previously, staff had spent two days in each community, but in 2021, they were only able to conduct their surveys over one day, as mandated by the province. As well, Wall says it can be tricky to find those who are ‘hidden homeless’.

“Did we miss some? Absolutely,” said Wall. “Doing a point-in-time count can understate the true level of homelessness. But when we look at the numbers, there’s a lot that we can celebrate within our communities.”

Wall says his biggest takeaway from the multiple months-long process and its 44 page report was the fact that younger adults are driving rates of ‘chronic’ homelessness in the region, which is defined as having at least six months of homelessness over the past year.

“What is driving homelessness is young people who do not have housing options, who are aging out of the child welfare and foster care system,” said Wall. “That feeling like you don’t belong and the loss of hope is just as much of a driver as to why we see so many young people out on the streets, as it is the infrastructure too.”

Through the KDSB’s point-in-time survey, staff found 34 homeless individuals under the age of 25 in the region. As well, the vast majority of survey respondents of all ages said they had first experienced homelessness before they were 25.

“If we want to end chronic homelessness in the region, our focus really has to be young adults, to ensure they have hope and access to housing that meets their needs. Does it work? It does,” says Wall.

As well as young adults driving rates of homelessness in the area, the report shows that medical illnesses or physical limitations, mental health concerns, income levels and to escape violence are re-occurring reasons for people to become homeless in the region, as well as substance abuse.

“There are a lot of misconceptions,” Wall notes. “There’s a belief that people are homeless because they struggle with addictions or mental health, and that may be true for some, but what we found through the survey was that it’s actually not substance abuse that is causing people to lose their housing. Only one in three lose their housing due to substance abuse.”

76 per cent of survey takers said they have a substance abuse issue, 49 per cent said they deal with an ongoing illness or medical condition, 37 per cent have a physical limitation, 26 per cent have a learning or cognitive limitation and 64 per cent said they deal with mental health concerns.

Wall says another major issue that the region is working to address is the justice system. The KDSB’s report says the #1 reason why residents were forced to stay in an emergency shelter was due to the judicial system, as residents were forced to wait for court dates in other communities, were recently released from jail or were released on bail with nowhere to go.

But, Wall explains that community projects and partnerships such as the Kenora Justice Centre and Bail After Care Supportive Housing program will help residents with culturally-appropriate services and supports while working to reduce the number of people in jail awaiting their trial.

“Those projects and programs will make a big difference over the long run, so that we don’t have young adults that are falling between the cracks, between services and ultimately end up on the streets,” says Wall. “Things are moving forward. These numbers will start to go down.”

Overall, while there are many contributing factors to the increasingly complex issue that is homelessness, Wall says the main issue the region faces continues to be a lack of available housing stock.

The KDSB says their housing wait-list has increased by 346 per cent since 2011. Families take up the largest part of the demographic at 39 per cent. Single residents were second on the list at 37 per cent, with seniors making up 14 per cent of the waitlist.

“That is significant. We cannot ignore that fact. We are in an affordable housing crisis across the region,” explains Wall, noting Canadian housing prices are up an average of 20 per cent compared to this time last year.

“The definition of what is ‘affordable’ for housing has changed so much over the last decade in our region, because of the growth of available jobs and the housing stock not keeping up. It’s putting pressure on the whole system.”

90 per cent of the KDSB’s survey respondents said they want to have permanent housing options. Most respondents said issues getting permanent housing arrangements include low levels of income, rent is too high in the area and addiction issues.

“We’ve added quite a bit of housing over the last couple of years, housing specifically to support those who are experiencing chronic homelessness,” adds Wall, noting the KDSB is one of the leaders in the province in terms of new housing units built to address chronic homelessness.

“In Kenora, a lot of progress is being made. A lot of work still has to be done for sure, but definitely, we need to get more housing stock and we need to make sure our young people have hope and access to housing. Then, a lot of the other things will start to fall into place.”

The KDSB says the results of this year’s report will help influence future service planning and support the importance and need for affordable housing in the district, as well as to help the community understand the many issues related to homelessness in the area.

“The study is a way to let our communities and let the public know what is happening in our communities, but through the process, it actually brings organizations together. It breaks down silos and opens up doors for discussion and planning. Very happy that we were able to do it again,” notes Wall.

This is the KDSB’s second Homeless Enumeration Report, the first being completed in 2018. The KDSB says they plan to conduct new counts every two years. This year’s report was set to take place in 2020 but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a significant project. We have some amazing people and staff who pour their heart and soul into what they do. But we couldn’t have done it without the over 50 different organizations that helped us pull this off. It was a true community effort across the region. We’re so thankful,” he adds.

Wall says municipalities, public health units, friendship centres and Indigenous organizations, hospitals, police services, social and youth services, mental health organizations and more all stepped up to assist in their work.

The KDSB is also planning a public Zoom meeting to discuss the results of this year’s report on March 24 at 6:30 p.m. Members of the public are asked to register HERE.

In 2022, the KDSB also plans to develop the new federally mandated By-Name list. This will list all people known to be experiencing homelessness in the district, which aims to help streamline the process for people experiencing homelessness to access housing and support.