Local affordable housing activist Chrystal Wilson has launched a GoFundMe campaign to get people experiencing homelessness in Kingston into hotels, and out of the dangerous cold.
So far she has raised over $5,000 to support ten individuals with temporary shelter. She said it started when she was trying to help one individual who has been living outside for months find safety and shelter.
“We had been supporting somebody since November in the woods down by Greenview Drive,” Wilson said. “He did intake with Home Base Housing (HBH), but they weren’t able to help him. Meanwhile, he was being harassed by the neighbours. Someone came in with a rottweiler and a group of seven people to scare him.”
Wilson said there was news coverage of his predicament, and as a result, he lost some of his financial support from Ontario Works (OW).
“His OW caseworker wrote to him and said ‘We heard you’re homeless,’ so they pulled the housing portion of his support. He’s now left with $300 per month,” she said. “This is someone who the worker acknowledges should be on ODSP, but they haven’t been able to get him there.”
Wilson said she found a hotel that was willing to offer him a room at $59 per night. “We moved them into a hotel and thought it would be short term. Let them settle and have a shower while we figure out the next step. And then, we encountered some other people who were interested.”
With numbers growing, Wilson set up a GoFundMe campaign. “Thanks to the campaign we’ve been able to do this since January 30,” she said. “The hotel has been really supportive of our efforts and gives us free nights sometimes. Everyone has been on their best behaviour.”
She did not want to disclose the location of the hotel, but said they’ve found a second location willing to give them the same rate.
Wilson keeps a spreadsheet updated and linked to the fundraising page. It tracks how the money is spent and the projected check-out dates for the rooms, based on the current funding.
“I’m being very transparent,” she said. The people being supported are also contributing whatever they can afford, she noted. “Now, we’re going back to OW and saying ‘Hey, they’re housed, please reinstate the housing support.’”
They’ve been successful in that one individual’s case, though she said the additional funding will only cover his hotel costs for a week.
Securing long-term housing
Wilson and a team of volunteers are also working with hotel clients trying to help them make steps forwards towards long-term stability.
“We’re working through their cases. What is it they need? Is it ID? Is it getting their taxes caught up? Is it paperwork?” She said sometimes the documentation that people are being provided is not accessible to them. She is asking everyone for their written consent for her to complete forms on their behalf, and advocate to their case workers directly.
The group is celebrating success this week as one of them has secured a lease and is preparing to move into their own place.
“Yesterday we picked up the keys for our first housing success,” Wilson said. “If we can get every case that far, that’s amazing, but I don’t know if we can.” She said the landlord has agreed to work with her to try to find other properties, but in the meantime she is focused on making it to spring.
“We want to keep them stable for the winter,” she said.
She said the individual found housing on their own. “We helped them with the paperwork. You can get first and last-month’s rent covered by OW, but you have to jump through the hurdles. If you don’t have the technology or the stubbornness to make it through that paperwork, it’s hard.”
This simple administrative burden, she said, can sometimes be enough to block people from achieving the stability they need to improve their situations.
“We’re amateurs,” Wilson noted. “This is not a sustainable venture without funding. Getting people in from the cold, especially with the number of frostbite cases, is essential right now. And people are exhausted. I’m exhausted.”
Response from the City
Wilson said her hotel campaign once again exposes serious gaps in the City’s housing and homelessness infrastructure.
“I don’t understand why I’m in this position. I don’t understand why I’m here doing this,” she said.
Wilson has brought the campaign to the attention of City Councillors, and received an email reply from one of them. When asked if she had directly approached the City’s Housing and Social Services department, she said she no longer bothers.
“It’s not worth it anymore, it’s not worth my effort.” Wilson spent the summer making daily trips to the Belle Park encampment doing similar support and advocacy work, and said she is too familiar with municipal responses.
“I send them letters. The City of Kingston does know about this because someone from the City called the hotel to ask how many rooms we have and who is in each room. Which is a huge violation of privacy.”
“We’re not giving names anymore,” she added. “They’re all in my name. It’s all on my credit card. It’s all my liability.”
Councillor Simon Chapelle shared the GoFundMe campaign on social media and has publicly contributed $50. Wilson said she has not heard from him directly.
Local provincial Liberal candidate for Kingston & the Islands, Ted Hsu, has also contributed $100 and set up a meeting with Wilson next week.
“I’ve been emailing councillors, but they’re just not engaging. They seem to prefer to remain oblivious.” When asked what she thought councillors could do, Wilson replied: “They could fund the effort. We’re just volunteers. But for the City I think doing this is cheaper than not doing it.”
Navigating a complex shelter environment
Wilson noted that there are currently four designated warming centres in the City of Kingston, down compared to last year because of the pandemic. None of them are open over night.
“The City will tell you the reason there’s nothing overnight is because there’s room in the overflow shelter,” operated by HBH, she said.
“I don’t know who’s allowed in there. People are being rejected because they’re unknown to the shelter or they’re too high risk,” she said.
She said that in her experience, people who try to go to the shelter may be directed to the City’s new Integrated Care Hub (ICH) instead.
“We tried with HBH,” more than once for one individual, she said. “They said he wasn’t allowed to go into the shelter because he could be at the Hub. But he doesn’t want to be at the hub, he doesn’t use their services. He doesn’t use hard drugs, he doesn’t have addiction issues. He’s just poor.”
“I also have one person here with me who was deemed too dangerous to be at the Hub,” she added. “He’s doing fine.”
When asked why the Hub deemed the individual dangerous, Wilson replied simply that he becomes over-stimulated in that environment. “There’s too much noise,” she said.
Wilson said extending hours for the warming centre at Stages Night Club overnight could make a big difference.
“There are too many people at the Hub who don’t need to be there. The other people who don’t need the support of Consumption Treatment Services, let’s get those people out of there.”
The City of Kingston purchased Fairfield Manor West to repurpose as affordable housing in October 2020, using money allocated from the Province through the Social Services Relief Fund. The building is currently sitting vacant.
Ruth Noordegraaf, Director of Housing and Social Services for the City of Kingston, told Kingstonist on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2021 that a Request for Proposal (RFP) to repurpose and operate the facility is due out by the end of February.