Why is #LongestNightPeel so Important in our Community?
Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about someone who has become homeless and their life has been turned upside down. The reasons are many – family breakdown, job loss, trauma, mental health, addictions, poverty, displacement and isolation. In Peel Region, homelessness and poverty, for the most part, are invisible. United Way wanted to dig deeper to understand who is impacted by poverty so that we can drive solutions and supports. We learned and saw that people were living in their cars because they couldn’t afford housing. Many individuals were the working poor, precariously employed, working hard to make ends meet, but no matter how hard they worked, they couldn’t afford their housing costs.
We decided to do something about it. The #LongestNightPeel initiative began in 2015 to raise awareness about homelessness and poverty in our community. We challenged individuals to spend one night in their car in return for a changed perspective and experience that would last a life time. Four years later, we have come a long way. We have had successes along the way but we also have more to do. As I reflect on the journey, here are some milestones that we have accomplished in partnership with government, local service providers, volunteers, donors and community members.
In 2016, for the first time, United Way along with community partners undertook a registry week held in June, to identify people who were homeless in our community. Four hundred and fifty-five surveys were conducted with people who were homeless, precariously housed or at risk of being homeless. Of this group, 262 were homeless. The survey gave us really important information about who is homeless and the circumstances that impacted their lives, and it helped develop and implement a tool that would identify acuity of need and move towards housing those most vulnerable first.
In 2017, the growing awareness about homelessness and the gap in supports led to Brampton’s first youth shelter being established – Brampton Queen Street Youth Shelter. Previously, Brampton did not have a youth shelter, and youth would end up in Mississauga or go to Toronto for support and shelter. However, Mississauga itself only has 14 emergency shelter beds and, far too frequently, youth were being turned away. The important support and action from the Region of Peel must be recognized as they, along with community partners and United Way, undertook the work necessary to open up this shelter for youth.
However, we all know that shelters are not the answer. They are an important support, necessary to have, however the solutions lie in affordable housing, quick access to subsidized housing for those that can’t make ends meet, and wrap around supports that can help people maintain their housing – mental health and addictions supports, counselling, income, employment, communities and networks that care and help people belong and connect.
In 2017, United Way proposed the Canada Housing Benefit to the federal government for its national housing strategy, which I’m pleased to report that the government adopted. This benefit will provide a near-term solution to the severe affordability problems faced by many in poverty. Investments in existing social housing stock and new affordable supply are also required, however, planning, development and construction will take time. Direct financial assistance to tenants could alleviate core housing needs without waitlists or the disruption of moving. In addition, because of its flexibility and responsiveness to individual needs, direct assistance can potentially contribute to labour market mobility and promote mixed-income neighbourhoods. Policy actions such as this are concrete solutions towards addressing homelessness, affordable housing and poverty.
In 2018, over 130 community members participated in the #LongestNightPeel, raised much-needed funds, and documented their experiences on social media, with the hope that homelessness can be eradicated.
Sleeping in your car, on the streets, couch surfing, staying for a few nights with family or friends are what people do to survive, to get by. We have made some steps in the right direction with community-based supports and policy changes. However, we still have almost 13,000 households on the wait list for subsidized housing and 18 per cent of our children in Peel Region live in poverty. That’s not acceptable. Ending poverty is everyone’s business - it robs people of their potential, costs us all too much, and undermines what we stand for: a place where everyone has a fair chance at a good life.