Mental connection Richard J. Read  

“I’d rather be here”: living in tents is better than shelter for some in Guelph

Theft, trash, and safety hazards, such as propane tanks, are among the concerns associated with homeless settlements around town.

Steps from the rail tracks parallel to the busy York Road from Guelph, along a grassy path amid trees and wildflowers, you’ll find tents, tarps and back-to-back shelters. These are the homes of people who are otherwise homeless, and there are similar settlements in isolated places all over the city.

“There has always been a group that chose to live outdoors for a variety of reasons,” said Gail Hoekstra, executive director of Welcome In Drop In Center, a local organization dedicated to finding solutions to homelessness.

Hoekstra says the community has a “list by name” which is kept up to date, keeping track of all homeless people. The names on the list change as people move in and out of homelessness, but the number tends to hover around 140.

It is not known exactly how many of these people might be ‘sleeping on the streets’ at any given time, but at the start of the summer season there were about a dozen settlements around town where people lived outside instead. than using the shelter. system, says Hoekstra.

“They are often in groups, so they support each other with tents and food,” she said.

Many people will have seen similar settlements this summer – albeit on a larger scale – in reports from Toronto, where police helped evict people from public parks. But in Guelph, the situation is different in that people sleeping rough could easily do so without the knowledge of their less precarious neighbors.

“Compared to Toronto, our crowd that tends to sleep outside doesn’t do so in visible spaces,” Hoekstra said.

That’s true for Pete, whose real name the Mercury Tribune has agreed not to publish due to the stigma attached to homelessness.

Pete has a sheltered spot along the banks of the Speed ​​River with several tarpaulin-covered tents and a more solid structure built with salvaged materials. It has a fire pit, camping stove, camping chairs to sit on. He dries clothes and even seems ready to offer visitors a cup of coffee.

“We tried to make it comfortable,” he said.

Laundry dries under a graffiti covered bridge where members of Guelph’s homeless population have camped, largely out of sight of the community at large. -Jessica Lovell / Metroland

Pete, who has worked in the home improvement industry for 40 years, says he had housing in town that he rented out with friends, but lost his home at the start of the pandemic as the job shrank. was rare.

He is aware that there are indoor options available through the local shelter system, but he chooses not to access them.

“To be honest, there are other people who need more help,” he said, suggesting he didn’t need the shelter system as much.

From time to time, other people within the homeless community, including women, come to his home along the river to share the relative safety of his tent, and so it is not all. alone.

But Pete is also honest that he prefers not to follow the rules of the shelter.

“I’d rather be here,” he said.

He knows this is the case with many people he has met in the homeless community, many of whom struggle with mental health issues and addictions.

“They want to be free like everyone else,” Pete said.

• Thoughts on Homelessness in Guelph

Guelph Police Department’s Downtown Liaison Officer, Const. Mark O’Connell can attest to that.

Because the homeless population congregates around the city center, O’Connell is the GPS go-to person for the homeless. He knows them by name and knows their stories.

One person he describes has difficulty staying in the shelter due to an inability to sleep.

“You go to the shelter, you are supposed to sleep,” said O’Connell, explaining that this man’s mental illness prevents him from sleeping at night and makes him disruptive to others at the shelter.

Another man refused to give up his dog, even to an organization that would temporarily welcome him.

“He’s been camping for four or five years,” O’Connell said.

But even though he knows the locals well, O’Connell says the role of the police is relatively minor when it comes to dealing with rough sleepers in Guelph.

“We kind of respond when necessary,” he said.

Police can be called in to help remove occupants from an encampment if an owner complains, O’Connell says. But when the camps are located on provincial land or owned by a railroad, these complaints are rare.

“The biggest problem with campsites is liability,” O’Connell said.

A few months ago, police seized 30 propane tanks from an encampment on Department of Transportation lands.

Propane tank and garbageA pile of garbage, including a discarded propane cylinder, litter a wooded area in Guelph where homeless people had set up camp. -Jessica Lovell / Metroland

The tanks, which are used as a fuel source for heating and cooking, were not stored safely and posed a safety risk.

There’s also a good chance they were stolen, which is another issue with the encampments, O’Connell says.

But police have no reason to take things when they can’t confirm it’s stolen property, he said.

More often than not, complaints come not from landowners, but from members of the public concerned about things like crime, garbage, or thrown needles.

These complaints are usually handled by the city’s regulations department, but since April there is a new outreach worker in the city whose job it is to visit the camps and get in touch with the people there. live.

Eli Walker was hired with funding from Wellington County as part of a Housing Focused Street Outreach pilot program.

“My job is to connect with these chronically homeless people,” says Walker. “To ultimately make them feel comfortable enough to connect with someone who could ultimately lead them to housing.”

When the settlement receives a call, Walker is put on a loop. He visits the camps and tries to talk to the people there. If there is no one on his visit, he leaves a note and promises to come back.

It keeps track of the location of camps, as well as the people they meet there, adding them to the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System, a shared database that tracks the number homeless people in the region.

“The majority of people camping have already been added to this list,” Walker said, noting that most had been homeless for months, if not years.

The majority are male, and many are older – in their late thirties or even older, he says.

Walker, who studied sociology, criminal justice, and public policy at the University of Guelph, has worked with the local homeless population in the past as a staff member in the Supportive Recovery Room at Loyola House.

He says he’s still working to make connections with rough sleepers, but “individuals have been very receptive.”

Walker offers them options, informing them of services available in the community, such as harm reduction services offered by the Guelph Community Health Center, meals served by Royal City Mission, or beds available at the emergency shelter in Guelph. Gordon Street.

While individuals may already be aware of these services and choose not to use them, Walker hopes the connection he is working to make will make them more likely to change their mind.

If a stranger recommends the shelter, that doesn’t mean much, says Walker.

“If your close friend told you to go, you would feel more comfortable taking that advice,” he said.

At least two people have started attending the emergency shelter since Walker started working, and if even one person is helped by the knowledge he shares, Walker thinks it’s a victory.

“Just telling that person who has been homeless for so long that there is another option, that’s an incentive right there,” he said.

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY: After hearing about a large number of propane tanks being removed from a local encampment, the Mercury Tribune wanted to learn more about the people living in camps around town and how these people are supported by the community.

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