Homelessness a major concern for agencies
Financial problems, addiction and mental health issues underly widespread issue
Syed Mustafa says he owes his life to various mental health and addiction services in Niagara.
The 52-year-old had it all as recently as three years ago — a loft apartment in downtown Toronto, and income from two jobs rolling in.
Suffering from bipolar disorder, he also masked depression with alcohol and cocaine, and eventually saw it all fall apart as his gambling addiction drew him to the region, going all-in several nights a week at the casinos in Niagara Falls.
He hit rock bottom and ended up in the psychiatric ward at St. Catharines hospital after what he describes as a “depressive episode.”
He never resorted to having to live on the streets, but he did spend many months couch surfing, staying with friends for short periods of time.
Rehab facilities such as Wayside House in St. Catharines and New Port Centre in Port Colborne also played critical roles in him getting his life back on track.
Currently six months sober, he landed his own apartment in Welland through the Hope Centre’s programming and is working on his recovery before reentering the work world.
Coincidentally, while in Toronto, he worked for 15 years with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the Assertive Community Treatment team at North York General Hospital, a career he hopes to continue once he’s well, also putting the diploma from Humber College’s nursing program he earned in 1996 back in use.
Although he’s a had a few vices, booze was what did him in, he says in a recent interview at the Hope Centre.
“It never led to anything good. I was in pretty rough shape,” says Mustafa, also describing his former self as “lost” and “out of control.”
He became disconnected from his family who live in Toronto and the U.S., but does say he is “reconnecting” with them as he follows his current path to recovery, made possible through the services provided by the Hope Centre, which recently assisted him in finding his new apartment and keeping clean.
“What’s been effective is the programming here. I have a lot of gratitude for the people who have helped me,” says Mustafa, who volunteers several days a week at the centre to show his appreciation, interacting with individuals with similar struggles.
Working in the mental health and addiction field before his own problems caught up to him, Mustafa says his understanding of what people are going through is vast.
“I’ve really got to see the other side of it,” he says.
The Hope Centre’s new chief executive officer, Jon Braithwaite, says the number of people without shelter in Welland is unknown, but points out that most recent statistics, taken by Niagara Region in late March, show there were 625 individuals across Niagara experiencing homelessness, 144 of them children.
There are 15 emergency beds available through the Hope Centre, in hotel rooms located in Niagara Falls, where people can stay for a maximum of 30 days while trying to find their own residence.
In other apartments and homes, there is an additional 45 beds offered through the centre’s programs.
Braithwaite says the issue of homelessness is widespread across Niagara and that the city isn’t unique to other communities.
“I couldn’t say it’s much different than the rest of the region,” he says, adding a large part of the centre’s focus is helping people face the root causes of why they don’t have a home.
“We try to address the issues that are causing homelessness.”
In October, before Braithwaite took over as the leader at the facility, a $3-million affordable housing project with 20 units set to be built at Hope Centre’s King Street site was taken off the table.
There are 427 affordable housing units currently occupied in Welland through various providers and another 461 through Niagara Regional Housing (NRH).
A rent supplement program through which tenants are subsidized on an income-based formula applies to people in 153 units in Welland.
The average wait time for seniors is five years and six years for singles in a bachelor apartment. People looking for a onebedroom abode could wait up to 15 years and two-bedroom apartments for families may not available for 15 years, according to NRH.
Glen Walker, chair of Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, says Mustafa’s situation, sleeping on couches with no fixed address, is something that is plaguing people with financial-related problems — coupled with mental health and addiction difficulties — in the region.
“That’s one of the hidden homelessness issues we see throughout Niagara,” he says.
The lack of affordable housing is also something that needs to be addressed through strategies formed by the regional and local governments, he feels.
“We see a lot of new residential builds, but where’s the affordable housing piece?” he asks.
Available shelters are over capacity and mental health and addiction programs are “bulging at the seams,” says Walker, also executive director of Positive Living and co-chair of the Overdose Prevention and Education Network of Niagara.
“I see the amount of people who need help and support growing. The situation is not getting better here,” says Walker about Niagara as a whole.
Welland Mayor Frank Campion says camps in public parks across the city are often found.
When this happens, the municipality works with local agencies and police to assist the people living outdoors.
Campion says forming a strategy to combat homelessness will be a priority this term.
“It’s certainly at the top of the list — affordable housing, homelessness as an issue,” he says.
The mayor says dealing with people living on the streets and in secluded parts of the city who don’t want to get into affordable housing is also a struggle.
“There’s not a simple solution and there’s not a single solution.”
Not only have camps been discovered on municipal property, but also on lands along the canal owned by St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corp., says Alvina Ghirardi, manager of regional services for the seaway corporation.
When this occurs, social agencies are contacted to help get the people staying there relocated.
“Hopefully they are able to get support and more permanent shelter,” says Ghirardi, who also says more cases of this seem to take place in Port Colborne than in Welland.
Melissa Kirkpatrick, chief executive officer of Open Arms Mission in Welland, says the lack of emergency shelter in the city has reached crisis level.
“Homelessness is a major problem in Welland.”
There is no Out of the Cold overnight accommodations program in Welland, just in other parts of Niagara.
Kirkpatrick says Open Arms and other agencies, joined by the city and regional governments, need to have further discussions on forming a plan to address this serious issue.
“We’re not sure how that will shape or form, but we do want to be at the table for that.”
Syed Mustafa, 52, recently moved into an affordable housing unit in Welland through programming offered by the Hope Centre.
Affordable housing on McLaughlin Street in Welland.