In December 2018, the City of Guelph’s Mayor announced his plans to establish a Mayor’s Task Force to address issues of homelessness, addictions, and community safety. The goal of the Task Force was to form an action plan that could be implemented quickly and make a measurable impact on the homelessness issue.  The hope was to amplify work that was already ongoing, including initiatives and solutions that have been assessed and planned but not implemented (or cancelled when funding ran out).

The Task Force included representatives from the Guelph-Wellington Task Force on Poverty Elimination, the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy, the County of Wellington, Member of Parliament, Member of Provincial Parliament, United Way and other agencies and leaders who are experts in both the problems and the potential solutions.

The Task Force began its work by hearing from local experts, including shelter directors who shared the stories (using assumed names) of a local youth and adults who are experiencing homelessness. Shelter directors and other agencies reported that there is capacity at Guelph’s emergency shelters, even on the coldest nights, and that hotels and motels are used if shelters reach capacity. The Task Force agreed that issues of homelessness, substance use, and mental health are all related, and that the majority of people in Guelph who are homeless are also experiencing issues with mental health and substance use.  A solution requires more than simply adding beds; it involves addressing mental health and addiction needs so that individuals with complex needs are able to maintain housing. Addressing homelessness could also take pressure off other, often more costly services, such as the hospital’s emergency room, EMS, Guelph Police, corrections and court systems, emergency shelters and drop-in centres, and front line health and social services agencies.

Over the course of a few meetings, a priority list of five actions was developed, including:

  • Permanent supportive housing to house 15 chronically homeless individuals with complex needs from the County of Wellington’s By Name List. The housing would be staffed 24/7 to support residents struggling with addiction, mental health, or chronic health issues, so that they can maintain housing. It would stop the cycle of more expensive interventions such as the shelter system, emergency services and hospital, police, and the justice system.
  • Re-open a Supported Recovery Room for people experiencing addiction or mental health crisis, who are too sick to be in a shelter, but not sick enough to be in a hospital. The SSR would have a minimum of five beds, would be staffed by a registered nurse, addiction counsellor, and peer worker, and would meet sleep and recovery needs for clients for up to 72 hours. A pilot project ran successfully until funding expired, and a service plan and budget is already in place. A host building would need to be found.
  • Fund the Welcoming Streets outreach worker who supports individuals and businesses in the downtown. The funding for this pilot project expires March 31, 2019. The pilot was successful in connecting individuals to services and supports, and educating and empowering downtown businesses.
  • Re-start an Addiction Court Support Worker program, which provides a counsellor who connects people to addiction services and supports at a key moment: when they are in bail court. The pilot project, which ran in 2017, showed positive outcomes. Participants reported engaging with treatment (many for the first time) and having fewer, or no further, contacts with police.
  • System and service improvements, such as expanding service hours to evenings, weekends, and holidays; including peer supports in service delivery; and including homeless people and substance users in the design of services.

Members of the Task Force agreed that the single largest barrier to achieving these priorities was a lack of funding.

After discussion and commitments from community partners, including the City of Guelph and the Waterloo-Wellington Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), United Way has committed $150,000 to the Supported Recovery Room and $10,000 to the Welcoming Streets Initiative.

“This is exactly why United Way exists; as our community’s largest non-governmental funder of social service programs, we are thrilled to play a part in the solution of homelessness and related mental health and addiction issues. We are committed to working with the members of the Task Force and our funded agencies to serve our local community’s vulnerable populations, which includes ensuring a network of basic needs and mental health supports is available to those who need it.” – Ken Dardano, executive director of United Way Guelph Wellington Dufferin

The funding approved by Council, United Way, and other partners is one-time funding to meet the urgent priorities identified by the task force. Mayor Guthrie and United Way pledged to work with partners in the coming months to develop long-term, sustainable funding plans to enable the projects to continue past 2019. Work will also continue on the two other task force priorities: the development of permanent supportive housing, and system and service improvements such as offering services on evenings and weekends.