The following is a submitted letter to the editor. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.
Our neighbours, who declared they’d had enough of dysfunctional shelters, bug ridden housing, and support services which are disjointed and not supportive, took their well-being into their own hands last summer and created a community for themselves at Belle Park. Though some Kingstonians forgot that people struggling need supports, others stepped up, provided food, safety equipment and most of all empathy. Those who listened began to understand how difficult it is to navigate a system designed to keep people struggling. We all saw how much effort it takes to survive when you don’t have a safe place to call home.
We heard negative rhetoric about why people were choosing tents over housing or shelters. The reality is, many of the favourite buildings for housing workers to place people are not suitable for living, and often come with hundreds of extra multi-legged roommates. These places often lack a sense of community, and lack supports to help with gaps in self-care skills. It wasn’t perfect, but at Belle Park, people embraced their community, they helped each other source supplies, fix tents, cook, and they protected each other. This group of neighbours did the best they could with what they had, and with very little official support.
The broader Kingston community was told the City was communicating with these neighbours, was having conversations, and was making efforts to meet people’s needs. Unless you count handing out papers best used for starting campfires, the conversations were limited. Our invitations for more meetings were declined, and we are still waiting for the apology promised for the eviction ‘mistake’ which occurred July 28, 2020. The people who were living at Belle Park were, and still are, willing and eager to share their stories, to have real conversations, and to collaborate with the City and support agencies to find a better path forward towards successful outcomes, together.
When the September 1, 2020 eviction came, we chose to stand down, and move elsewhere, to be peaceful. Despite the report which went to City Council that night, we moved people to other outdoor spaces, not to safe homes with roofs. When we tried to help people access shelter, there was no room. When we asked about the promised overflow space the City had just purchased on Lower Union, there was room, but the people from Belle Park were deemed too risky to be housed there. One person was told they couldn’t stay in the overflow space because Home Base Housing didn’t know them. They hadn’t accessed shelter services before, but had been at Belle Park since April, waiting for promised supports.
In that moment, we were still hopeful. There was a shelter review coming which we were promised would be transparent and would include giving people who had lived experience an opportunity to provide input. The property at 805 Ridley Drive was purchased by the City to provide supportive, affordable housing. And the Integrated Care Hub was trying to establish itself as a place for wrap around services and trauma informed care.
Today, our neighbours are losing hope, and too many have lost their lives. The shelter review is anything but transparent and inclusive. There is no information publicly available about how to participate or how to observe the proceedings. I had to make three requests in order to receive the meeting notes. None of the leadership from the Belle Park encampment have been invited to participate. While the Integrated Care Hub is trying, there are too many people who need support, up to 75 more than the 25 person daytime capacity at the Hub. Too many souls are sitting outside the building in the cold, doing their best to behave, in hopes that someone might help them. Despite using $1.13 million in Social Services Relief Funding, 805 Ridley Drive remains empty. I have to press the City to keep information about warming centres and meal programs up to date and accurate. This information is still not in an accessible format for the intended audience; a volunteer community is working together to remedy this negligence.
After learning, listening, watching, and hoping, it is clear to me, the challenge of helping people find paths to stability and wellness has found no leadership within the City of Kingston organization. In other cities, Councillors, like Leigh Bursey of Brockville, MPPs, like Suze Morrison of Toronto, and MPs, like Matthew Green of Hamilton, are leading the charge, are rallying for support, and have their boots on the ground contributing to solutions. Despite having to navigate the same funding silos, other Ontario municipalities are finding creative solutions to this challenging situation. What’s most disappointing to me is that there appears to be no desire to hold real conversations with the people who have the best insight into the types of supports they need.
This letter is an appeal to neighbours in the Kingston community who understand that to alleviate police and court budgets, reduce hospital visits, relieve overworked front line heroes, and most importantly, save lives, we need to help build supportive affordable housing. If we don’t find a way to help people find a safe place they are happy to call home, support systems will just keep spinning their wheels, wearing out well-intended organizations, and burning through our tax dollars.
Please consider contacting your councillor, ask them for transparency, collaboration, and engagement – ask them to listen to the people who best understand their own needs. We’re supposed to be in this together, let’s give those words more substance.
Chrystal Wilson is a housing and homelessness advocate in Kingston and the area.