Growing tent cities as Oshawa struggles with homelessness crisis

OSHAWA — It’s a hot day in Oshawa, but under the John Street bridge along the Oshawa Creek trail there’s a breeze so that’s where half a dozen people, many of them homeless, spend a recent Friday in July.

The creek trail is something of a highway for Oshawa’s poorest residents who find hidden spots to pitch a tent or a tarp to spend the night and it’s the city’s most well-known “tent city,” though by no means the only one. People living outdoors have also setup camp in local parks and in green spaces near shopping outlets and railroad tracks.

The John Street bridge is the first stop for Christeen Thornton and Daniel Cullen who are members of DIRE — Direct Intervention Reaching Everyone — in their weekly walk along the creek in an effort to reach out to Durham’s homeless. They hand out granola bars, bottles of water, harm reduction kits with clean needles and alcohol pads as well as information pamphlets with resources for the poor.

Thornton began this outreach work after stumbling onto an area dubbed “tarp mansion” while hiking with her partner in June.

“We realized this is a much bigger problem than we thought,” said the longtime anti-poverty and housing advocate. “Homelessness is a Canada crisis at this point.”

Thornton stops to say hello to Gary “Pops” Walton flashing her phone to show him community response to his story which Thornton had shared but also to ask if he has seen a missing woman whose worried mother had contacted Thornton.

Walton explains he’s called Pops because he’s a little bit of a father figure for people living along the trail. Thornton supplies him with Naloxone kits and Walton said he regularly checks on people along the trail.

He’s seen a large uptick in the number of people living outdoors this summer, some of them as young as 16 or 17.

“Something’s gotta get done,” said Walton. “These kids shouldn’t be here, they should have somewhere to go.”

He came out to Oshawa about 13 years ago from the East Coast. He was headed to Edmonton to see his daughter get married when he was injured. He lost his housing when his landlord sold the house.

A wheelchair user, Walton now often sleeps at Cornerstone, the downtown Oshawa men’s shelter, but has also spent nights outdoors.

“I don’t know what most of these guys are going to do when winter gets here, if they don’t have winter gear a lot of them are going to end up dead,” he said.

As Thornton and Cullen continue along the creek heading south, there are numerous sites where people have created impromptu homes.

In some spots there are tents, air mattresses and sleeping bags while others are a series of tarps creating an apartment divided into several rooms.

An elaborate enclosure has a sign saying “This is my house, f— off.” The person who lives there isn’t home so Thornton doesn’t enter, instead opting to leave a package for them outside.

One spot is strewn with piles of old clothes, hung on the trees and scattered across the ground.

Thornton said the site was a winter campsite where the clothes were used to insulate against the frozen ground. She said she doesn’t believe the site is currently occupied though it looks like it has been cleaned up.

She points to one area that was raided by bylaw.

“Before it was so clean and the person won’t come back because they’re scared their stuff will get destroyed again,” said Thornton.

Used needles are a common sight, some with caps and some without and Thornton said it’s a public health issue as is access to harm reduction services like those provided by Project X, the John Howard Society’s needle exchange program.

“Last week there was a lady literally using creek water to shoot up, that is a huge problem,” she said.

One site has a yellow sharps container for used needles. It’s almost full. Cullen explains it was supplied by Project X, and people will use the containers if they’re available.

The annual homeless count by Community Development Council Durham and Durham Mental Health Services counted 271 individuals experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness in Durham.

The count is a snapshot of a three-day period in February 2017. Of those 20 per cent were deemed to be unsheltered — people staying in public spaces or fast food restaurants overnight. The count also found that 74 per cent of unsheltered homeless in Durham were in Oshawa.

Kathleen Taylor is originally from Fenelon Falls but has lived in Toronto and Barrie in addition to Oshawa.

She says she has spent the last year and a half “off the grid” in Oshawa because she likes the city and the services here. She and her partner used to have a tent but a couple of teenagers — she estimates they’re 18 or 19 — took it over recently and she’s not willing to ask for it back. Instead the couple huddles together for warmth and sleeps out in the open.

“The last thing I’m going to do is tell these children to get out of a tent, I couldn’t sleep at night,” she said. “I’m not unhappy, it’s been kind of warm out. But it rained yesterday and I was drenched, I didn’t have any clean clothes.”

Taylor explains she turns to community organizations like the Backdoor Mission or St. Vincent’s for meals.

“Cleanliness is a huge thing for me and I’ve had to downgrade my quality of cleanliness to stay sane living outside.”

She explains she spent last winter outdoors, turning to her partner for body heat, huddled under blankets and using cardboard boxes and grass from a nearby field to insulate the ground. She too believes there’s been an increase in the number of people living in Oshawa’s tent cities and said while there are challenges, there are good people too.

“There’s no honour among thieves but there are good ones, the ones who don’t have so much are the ones who are the most generous.”

Thornton points out one of the challenges of the shelter system is there is nowhere for couples to stay together. She promises to connect with Taylor and supply her with a tarp.

Oshawa Mayor John Henry said the city is aware of the growing number of people camping outdoors.

“So far this year we’ve dealt with five (sites) where we’ve had people come in and just set up tents and we’ve been dealing with it,” he said referring to bylaw enforcement. “When it’s public safety we deal with it one way, when it’s not a public safety issue we’re working with community agencies.”

Henry said the city is working with Cornerstone as well as the region’s health and social services department.

“We’re seeing more and more people struggling, part of it is opiates, mental health, some it is trying to find housing that works, that’s affordable,” he said.

He said the solution is not simply dismantling the tent cities as people will move to a different area.

“It’s a struggle and it’s a challenge for us because we have to do more and more with front line service people, we are doing our best but it sure would be nice to have a little more help from the province and the federal government,” said Henry who points out that other urban communities including Kitchener and Toronto are facing similar challenges.

Cornerstone executive director Rob Brglez said reasons for the increase in tent city occupants include the use of shelter beds in Toronto for the refugee crisis pushing people further out and gentrification in Oshawa reducing housing affordability.

Cornerstone shelter use is averaging higher than last year with the shelter running at 90 per cent occupancy and Brglez points out some people simply don’t want to stay in a homeless shelter.

Beyond regional services, he wants to see the City of Oshawa take a leadership role in addressing homelessness.

“One thing that we’ve always suggested is a long-term commitment to do what is necessary to alleviate homelessness in the city, not to pass it off to the region,” he said. “What I’m finding is there’s this washing your hands of this, it’s the same with the tent city stuff. We’re not interested in just helping the city pick up needles in the park, we want to see a real long-term solution.”

Brglez doesn’t let Durham’s other municipalities off the hook, but still believes Oshawa needs to take the lead.

“You’ve got places like Uxbridge that say we don’t have any homeless, well that’s because you’re a net exporter of your homeless to Oshawa,” he said. “That’s why Oshawa has to show some leadership, whether you like it or not the homeless are going to come here, they typically migrate to urban areas because the services are there.”

Back at tarp mansion, painted rocks memorialize those who have died.

One rock bears the words “RIP All Who Died of an Overdose” and nearby is a small group of plants that has been dubbed “Garden for those who lost their lives.”

https://www.durhamregion.com/news-story/8772913-growing-tent-cities-as-oshawa-struggles-with-homelessness-crisis/

 

 

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