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Talks underway to build 30-unit facility to address Indigenous homelessness in the Sault

Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services is offering to cover all capital costs to build the supportive housing facility
Sioux Lookout transition housing
If the Sault project moves ahead, it will be modelled after this highly successful supportive housing program in Sioux Lookout

District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board (DSSMSSAB) has entered into discussions with Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services and the local Indian Friendship Centre, aimed at building a 30-unit supportive housing facility here to address Indigenous homelessness.

Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services (OAHS), which maintains its provincial headquarters in the Sault, has offered to cover construction costs of the innovative facility, if DSSMSSAB provides $1.5 million in annual operating expenses.

Sault Ste. Marie Indian Friendship Centre will supply culturally appropriate programming and services including counselling and security.

Executive boards of all three organizations have agreed in recent weeks to pursue the project, first developing a concept and business case, hoping for provincial support.

Mayor Christian Provenzano and MPP Ross Romano have both received initial briefings on the proposal.

Similar project in Sioux Lookout reduced 911 calls by 90 per cent

The 30-unit facility will be modelled after a smaller, 20-unit supportive housing project that has operated for the past seven years in Sioux Lookout, and a 30-unit OAHS build currently underway in Kenora.

If DSSMSSAB agrees to pay the $1.5 million annual cost of operating the program, and a suitable location can be found in the Sault, construction would take about one year.

Clients could stay there as long as four years less a day while receiving the physical and mental health assistance needed to move into long-term tenancies.

'Appalling' – 40 per cent of Sault's homeless are Indigenous

"To truly offer truth and reconciliation for Indigenous people, the City of Sault Ste. Marie needs to face the truth and the appalling fact that almost 40 per cent of the people homeless in Sault Ste. Marie, are in fact, Indigenous," says Paul Gouge, chair of the local Indigenous Community Advisory Board.

Gouge bases that statement on the last published 'point-in-time' count of persons without shelter, or staying in shelters or short-term housing, conducted here on April 18, 2018.

A new count was taken late last month and is currently being collated.

"Truly, we believe the number is greater than that, but those are the recorded numbers," Gouge said during a presentation at a recent DSSMSSAB meeting.

"Providing housing and supportive services for Indigenous people, by Indigenous people is the way to help end chronic homelessness in the City of Sault Ste. Marie."

Residential school trauma

"Indigenous people in Canada have been through generations of residential school traumas, attempts of genocide and systemic racism against Indigenous people which has led to generations of mistrust in mainstream public programming and assistance."

"Indigenous people still live with systemic racism," Gouge said.

"Regardless if society depicts racism as a way of the past, Indigenous people live with stereotypes of the 'Indian' to this day. When submitting a rental application to a mainstream housing provider, many Indigenous people don’t even bother, as they feel their application will either be thrown away, or moved to the bottom of the pile."

"When an application is going to an Indigenous organization, this barrier is immediately lifted and the need for social inclusion as with any living human being has begun," Gouge said.

Justin Marchand, chief executive officer at Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services, points out that while 40 per cent of unsheltered individuals in the Sault are Indigenous, the urban Indigenous population within the city limits is just 12 per cent.

"Two residential schools being in Sault Ste. Marie, I think that's actually unique in Canada for having the most residential schools in one place," Marchand told DSSMSSAB members.

Supportive housing

Marchand talked about supportive housing as one way to address the intergenerational trauma that comes from residential schools, a phenomenon he said has been well documented by sociologists and also biologists.

"There are physiological, physical impacts from the trauma that come from being in those environments, being taken from your family," he said.

"Yes, individuals absolutely need a home. One of the solutions to homelessness is having a home. But we also know that individuals need support as well."

"Fortunately, we have a mayor who has said he wants Sault Ste. Marie to be a leader in reconciliation and try to come up with solutions," Marchand said.

'We know that this deep-support model works'

Can the approach taken in Sioux Lookout work in Sault Ste. Marie?

"We know that this deep-support model works," Marchand says.

"We absolutely believe it will. We've had tremendous success in Sioux Lookout."

With a population of 4,500, the northwestern Ontario community used to have 11,000 calls to 911 each year.

"Almost half of those calls were from the same 19 individuals," Marchand said.

"Within months of getting into supportive housing that's culturally appropriate.... calls for service started to decrease by 80 to 90 per cent."

$50,000 a bed

Marchand points out that the $1.5 million a year being sought from DSSMSSAB amounts to $50,000 a bed.

That compares to a cost of $65,000 a bed at other comparable local mainstream supportive housing facilities, he said.

Sault Ste. Marie's homelessness problem is evident to anyone driving through our downtown at any time of the day or night, Marchand says.

People come out of the justice system with no exit plan and are are literally left on the sidewalk, he says.

"It's like Morgan Freeman in his movie where they leave him out at the gate with a suitcase in hand. Where do you think that individual is going to go when they don't have the supports? They're going to recycle back in because somebody is going to house them but it's not going to be someone that's very nice."

Shelter are 'magnets for organized crime'

The Sioux Lookout facility offers 24/7 support including security.

Says Marchand: "A young woman [in northwesterm Ontario] was literally abducted by gangs right from the shelter. The shelters are magnets for organized crime, because they know where the most vulnerable people are. It's as simple as that."

Cathy Syrette, executive director at the Sault Ste. Marie Indian Friendship Centre, says people come to her building "multiple times every day" looking for housing.

 "There's a good number of our people who have anxiety and cannot stay at a shelter. We have people walking around all night and just sleeping wherever they find a spot, on the street or in a park," Syrette says.

'It's sorely needed in Sault Ste. Marie' - Coun. Luke Dufour

"As a city councillor downtown, there's no issue that I hear more about than the visibility of homelessness downtown," says Ward 2 Coun. Luke Dufour, who chairs the DSSMSSAB.

"Our city is in desperate need of supportive housing," Dufour tells SooToday.

"Whether it's built and owned by our indigenous partners or the Housing Corp., it doesn't matter. It's sorely needed in Sault Ste. Marie and we need to make sure that stuff's happening."

Dufour is hoping the provincial government will offer support for the Sault's supportive housing proposal.

"We would like to proceed with their support. This needs to happen in Sault Ste. Marie and if they're not going to support it, we still need to find a way to make sure that this stuff gets built."


Sources close to the negotiations say there are at least two complications that must be worked out before the project can proceed here.

One is whether it will be exclusively for Indigenous clients, and if so, the degree to which DSSMSSAB can be involved.

The other issue is that DSSMSSAB is already facing fiscal pressures.

A draft operating budget presented at DSSMSSAB's last meeting, so far unapproved and not including the new supportive housing ask, called for an overall levy increase of 8.19 per cent over last year.

One factor in that proposed increase is a 26 per cent increase in the ambulance budget, prompted by the addition of a new 24-hour paramedic crew to cope with an unprecedented increase in calls.

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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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