Kingston homelessness data shows progress, but challenges remain: city official

The City of Kingston recently released new data on the city’s homeless population, and local officials say that while there has been progress in addressing homelessness, there’s still work to be done.

On April 11, over 80 volunteers trained by the United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington completed what’s known as a point-in-time count. Volunteers canvassed Kingston’s streets, parks, shelters and short-term accommodations to see who was living without a permanent home that evening and encountered 152 people who met the classification of homelessness, with over half of those people experiencing “absolute homelessness.”

The results of the count were released on Thursday, and Sheldon Laidman, director of housing and social services with the City of Kingston, said some of the results are positive.

“There continues to be a segment of the population that is hard to serve, and they go between hospital services, homeless services and police, and we’re challenged by that,” said Laidman. “But in general, shelter stays are down; the numbers are trending in the right direction.”

The number of people using emergency shelters in Kingston decreased by 12 per cent from 2016, the last time Kingston performed a homelessness point-in-time count.

There was an increase of 11 per cent in people using transitional housing, which is short-term accommodation geared toward target groups like people with addictions and/or mental health issues as well as homeless youth.

Laidman says the increase in transitional housing is a positive sign.

“It’s a better situation that they’re living in those transitional houses, where they can stabilize their life situation, rather than staying at the shelter,” he said.

Laidman says the goal is to make emergency shelters the last resort and that short-term accommodations like those run out of Addiction and Mental Health Services in Kingston are more effective ways of addressing homelessness.

“We’re recognizing more that (transitional housing is) becoming a normal type of housing in the city, especially by agencies who are dealing with mental health concerns,” he said.

Although positive changes were seen overall, Kingston’s female homeless population has grown in the last two years.

In 2016, half of the 132 people classified as homeless identified as women. In 2018, that number rose to 55 per cent, while the national average for female homelessness has been hovering around 25 per cent for the last few years.

“We’re at a much higher average for females, and we don’t have a good answer for that,” Laidman said.

He added that Kingston has services available for women at a rate comparable to other cities and speculated that Kingston’s services, along with its geographical standing, may be affecting the numbers.

“Kingston is the only city between Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal that is offering a full shelter system,” Laidman said, suggesting that people in need of shelter in smaller adjacent communities are forced to come to Kingston to seek help.

“In that regard, there’s a full-service interval house for women experiencing domestic violence, there’s the hospital system where they may have come to Kingston,” he added.

Laidman also suggested that since homelessness point-in-time counts are fairly new, national averages may not be exactly accurate.

According to Laidman, Kingston was the second city after Toronto to start taking stock of its homeless population. In 2013, as part of the city’s 10-Year Municipal Housing and Homelessness Plan, city officials conducted a homelessness survey for the first time. In 2016, point-in-time counts became federally mandated for any municipality receiving homelessness funding. Finally, last year, the government of Ontario made it a requirement of every municipality in the province to practice point-in-time counts.

“When people say the average (female homeless population) across Canada may only be 25 per cent, I’m not really sure that we have enough data that that’s really the average yet, because it’s such a new thing to try to quantify,” said Laidman.

Nevertheless, he says its something the City of Kingston wants to investigate further.

“That’s certainly something that we’ve identified as part of our update to the 10-year housing and homelessness plan,” Laidman said. “Are we offering the right services in Kingston to address that number, which is obviously higher than most communities would be experiencing?”

It’s also important to note that since Kingston started collecting this kind of data, the Indigenous homeless population has gone up in the city, climbing from 13 per cent in 2013 to 24 per cent this year. This rise is apparently consistent with the national average, but Laidman said it’s still on the city’s radar.

“(There is) lots of improvement that we can still be making. The Indigenous numbers, the female numbers: have we really looked at that and are we offering the right services?” he said.

The city will be working on its five-year update to the 10-Year Municipal Housing and Homelessness Plan soon, and city officials expect to tailor the next five years to address some of the issues found in this recently collected data.

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