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Oshawa shelter program receives mixed responses

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Food prepared at Camp Samac. Image: Kelly O'Brien

Durham Region, an hour east of Toronto, includes the cities of Oshawa and Pickering; towns of Ajax and Whitby; Municipality of Clarington; and townships of Brock, Scugog and Uxbridge.

With a population of 645,862 (according to the 2016 census), Durham Region had 291 residents experiencing homelessness (2018) -- 52 per cent male and 47 per cent female in the city of Oshawa, An additional 6,555 low-income applicants were on The Durham Access to Social Housing (DASH) waitlist, while another 80 applicants waited for modified units. The region also has three homeless shelters and four Violence Against Women shelters.

But COVID threw a wrench into housing Durham Region's homeless residents. Increased personal distancing meant finding additional accommodation. Hotels were used for housing until May when the In and Out of the Crisis (IOTC) program opened at Camp Samac.

Through a partnership with Scouts Canada, the region was able to use the Oshawa location, which had a kitchen, washroom facilities, beds and an outdoor space, to house 35 residents of all genders.

During the planning process, the region reached out to Durham College's W. Galen Weston Centre for Food (Weston Centre) to supply three meals a day to Camp Samac residents.

When COVID unexpectedly closed the college in March, the Weston Centre partnered with Community Care Durham (CCD) to launch the Community to Table Food Box program. The Weston Centre saw this as a valuable opportunity to donate fresh and preserved in-house fare that would otherwise go unused.

The $30 food boxes provide a variety of healthy, locally sourced baked, dried and processed goods along with eggs, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables, and paper products to community members facing challenges related to physical and mental health. The food boxes are delivered weekly by volunteers and CCD employees.

By May, the Weston Centre was providing three meals a day for residents at Camp Samac. The meals are prepared daily by the chefs who usually instruct students in the school's 72-seat full-service teaching-inspired restaurant, Bistro '67 -- named for the year the college opened.

According to Kelly O'Brien, general manager of the Weston Centre, "As a college, and at the Weston Centre, we feel it is important to work with community and support local. My chefs were not working in the restaurant and we felt this was a great way to make use of their time. These relationships are important now more than ever."

A typical breakfast includes baked goods, yogurt and fruit. Lunch is typically a selection of sandwiches with sides and a dessert. There's a hot boxed dinner with trimmings, and drinks are always available.

Ryan Cullen, a 2017 graduate from the horticulture, food and farming program at Durham College, is a part-time faculty member and full-time field supervisor at the Weston Centre. He manages the greenhouse, gardens, arboretum and market garden with a team of horticulture work-study students. 

His team of urban farmers stewards three-quarters of an acre of land, including an orchard, that produces over 7,000 pounds of food a year. The field-to-fork, sustainable farming venture supplies Bistro '67 with fruits, vegetables, edible flowers and herbs so the culinary students can work their magic.

Cullen says: "It's the students who are the leaders and producers on the farm and in our gardens. They are the heart and soul of what we do everyday. We are also demonstrating what a small urban farm is capable of. We want to share our yields with the community."

The farm also provides produce for the weekly farmer's market open every Friday and Saturday; community supported agriculture program; and CCD donations. The Weston Centre also boasts a unique retail food store, the Pantry, where farm-grown produce is turned into products for online sale by pantry technician Anna Mae Crespo.

The culinary team at Durham College will be providing meals until the end of August. For O'Brien, "During COVID, providing meals to the people being housed at Camp Samac has been something our team has been happy to support. It's been a good partnership and rewarding relationship."

The residents of Camp Samac not only have a safe place to stay and three meals a day, but many have been connected to social assistance programs; filed tax returns and received back payments; secured identification; accessed health care; and even found long term housing.

However, not everyone views the situation in a positive light. Christeen Thornton is executive director of the NGO Direct Intervention Reaching Everyone (DIRE), a grass-roots, anti-poverty advocacy and research group based in Oshawa.

While Thornton believes that shelter of all kinds is important, how and where it takes place is equally significant. A disproportionate number of unsheltered folk identify as First Nation and Inuit. Many have lived through the residential school system, the 60s Scoop, and most have experienced intergenerational trauma.

So it's problematic to have program referrals for Oshawa folk conducted at the Backdoor Mission located in Simcoe United Church and First Light Foundation of Hope (Referrals also take place at the Ajax Community Centre), and then house these folk in a Boy Scouts camp where the program is church-supervised.

Thornton also sees an incredible amount of money being spent 35 individuals, while the rest of the Oshawa and the greater Durham unsheltered community are left wanting. According to Thornton: 

"There aren't enough shelter beds to go around, and why aren't we investing in permanent housing anyway? Our elected officials clearly recognize the need for affordable housing, but instead of instituting rent caps in a city where the average one-bedroom costs over $1,000 they're relying on private companies to build shelters. Band-aids on chest wounds, I tell you."

Additional issues around program eligibility include being sober and drug free for the entire stay. Thornton points out that renders most of the unsheltered community ineligible.

The IOTC Program is intended to be a temporary solution during the pandemic. However, Erin Valant, manager of Affordable Housing and Homelessness Initiatives, says: "The Region is working with housing-focused programs to help as many clients as possible find permanent housing. The goal of homelessness programs in Durham is to help transition people into housing."

For Thornton:

"Government is supposed to help us, that's their job. There is enough money to go around, it is simply squandered. And not by the homeless person working at a construction site that hired him at a discount through a temp agency. It's being squandered by the very people we have voted in. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) is our right as human beings. We have the right to eat, drink water and thrive. This is our home; we have nowhere else to go. The current standards for assistance are too sub-par; around $114 for an unsheltered Ontario resident per month. No one can live on that."

During the recovery planning phase, as the IOTC program winds down, any Camp Samac residents who haven't found housing will be accommodated within the existing shelter system where they'll continue looking for permanent housing. The region's goal is to end homelessness by 2024.

Donations to DIRE can be made via Paypal using the email address [email protected]

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: Kelly O'Brien

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