In the middle of an especially cold and snowy winter last year, two community leaders in Dryden, Ontario, announced plans to open a temporary emergency shelter three nights a week.
There were hopes that it would open Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at Full Gospel Church, with support from the Kenora District Services Board (KDSB), which runs a suite of social services for nine municipalities across northwestern Ontario.
The news came as a relief to those living without stable housing, because there is no permanent shelter in the city of 7,400, located 350 kilometers west of Thunder Bay. This is despite the fact that there is an urgent need for shelter, with the KDSB estimating 60 to 80 people precariously inhabited.
However, the shelter was never opened and there is no indication that there will be one this winter either.
“I think at this point [people who are precariously housed] She gave up any hope, because it was nothing but broken promises,” said Shauna Pinkerton. She has experienced addiction and is now a community support worker providing harm reduction supplies and education to community members.
Pinkerton said that after originally advertising on Christmas Eve 2021, the people she was working with were constantly asking her, “When will you start? We need a place to sleep.”
Pinkerton said she never received answers about what happened last winter, adding that the result is that people either have to sleep outdoors or other community members’ homes become de facto shelters.
Mickey Verbonac, another community support worker in Dryden, told CBC News last summer that he often sleeps nine or ten people on his land because they have nowhere else to go.
Verbonac said at the time, “They are all homeless. They have nowhere to go. I open my door for them.”
The societal opposition stopped the plans
Community opposition played some role in derailing last year’s plans to open the temporary shelter, according to Henry Wall, chief administrative officer at KDSB.
“There were a lot of concerns expressed about the site, so we ended up not moving forward,” Wall told CBC News.
“It showed us how much community and public education still needs to happen when we talk about mental health and addiction, but also about homelessness and the stigma that people experiencing homelessness face daily from the general public.”
Nicholas Amodio, pastor of Dryden Full Angel Church, said there are efforts to find an alternative site in the downtown area.
“At least 20 sites were considered. However, each had significant health, safety, or security barriers: safety concerns for a site close to children or schools; inability to meet fire or building or zoning ordinance or City bylaw requirements,” added in an email.
Wall said there are some options to help people escape the elements if necessary, including finding overnight beds in hotels or other places in the community.
In their effort to eventually bring emergency shelter to Dryden, Wall said the KDSB has been working with the general public and local businesses to build support and a whole-community approach to address homelessness in the community.
“I think society is waking up to the fact that it has a homelessness crisis as well as a drug crisis.”
Shelter alone is not enough
Wall said that even if a shelter is built in Dryden, the community will need additional resources to end chronic homelessness.
“We are concerned that if the drug crisis is not addressed, having a shelter, just this in and of itself, will lead to an unsustainable amount of pressure on the shelter system,” he said.
“In the absence of community support and recovery programs, shelter becomes a near-waste of all other services and programs in the community.”
Wall recalled what happened a few years ago in the neighboring town of Kenora, when the shelter was closed and operating for several weeks in 2019 amid fears of crime and drug abuse in the community. The orphanage reopened that year.
Wall said there is an urgent need for more temporary and supportive housing, as well as an addiction treatment and detox center in Dryden.
While there is a lot of work to be done, Wall added that there are some positive developments, including the ongoing construction of 41 new units for seniors, which will open an additional 20 units for adults.
“That would be 20 units we didn’t have for the people we can now support to get off the couch and get off the street, and that’s going to make a huge difference.”
He said that these units are expected to be completed in the next 12 months.