Speaker Serires: Impact of COVID on shelters

event archives

Date: Wednesday January 27, 2021

The Impact of COVID-19 on our Shelter Crisis
Leigh Bursay, Municipal Councillor, and housing & homelessness activist
Debbie-Lee Pike, Founder of Not Alone Team
Brian Hart, Founder of Kate’s Rest

This is a speaker series event:
In our monthly speaker series we invite experts in their fields to present and discuss ideas that address our climate & community, both locally and nationally. These events are an open invitation to the community -not just to action – but to inquiry and discourse.

Last Wednesday, the Bay of Quinte Greens – Federal and Provincial Greens working together – held the second in their speaker series on the subject of homelessness and affordable housing in the Bay of Quinte. 

Jim Colby led the discussion among three panellists, who agreed to share their experiences: Leigh Bursay is a municipal councillor, author, journalist, and housing and homelessness activist in Brockville. He is the founder of “Brockville Streetfriends”, which provides emergency assistance to rough sleepers; Debbie-Lee Pike is Founder of “Not Alone Team Quinte”, a group of volunteers in Belleville and Quinte West that helps those facing homelessness and struggling with food insecurity; and Brian Hart is Founder of “Kate’s Rest” on Big Island in PEC, a shelter for 20 people emphasizing friendship to help re-forge relationships, build trust, and renew lives. 

Jim asked the panellists their stories – how they had come to do what they do – and a common theme was that they had lived experience. It’s sobering to realize that help often doesn’t come from those more fortunate but from disadvantaged people who have found strength in their own adversity.

The kind of homelessness they deal with is the most extreme – people without home or family who are living on the streets. Many have health, including mental health problems and exposure to our criminal justice system. All the panellists said these people deserve help – often it starts with just a hot meal.

Leigh – as well as working in Brockville – works at shelters in both Brockville and Ottawa. His observation is that there is little difference between homelessness in small communities and large towns – just that there are fewer places for people to get help. Debbie emphasized that a “place” is the first step – without an address community resources cannot be deployed. Brian said people need more than just a roof – they need a home, a place where they can rediscover trust and begin to contribute rather than receive.

Someone asked about a basic minimum income – all of the panellists thought it a good idea. Leigh mentioned how damaging the abrupt cancellation of Ontario’s recent experiment had been to those who had made longer-term commitments like housing and vehicles – the first steps to becoming employed. He said evidence has shown a basic income works. It doesn’t build a culture of dependence and can be a first step on the path to self-reliance. For those who are interested in the subject, you can read a recent report from a BC panel.

A question related to what kind of homes we should be building. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Brian agreed that community living offers people a place they can call their own – where they feel safe and where they belong. Debbie said that in emergency situations people needed to be isolated and stabilized. Leigh commented that low-income homes built with subsidies usually leak back into the private market and do not ensure long-term, affordable housing. 

Everyone agreed our care providers do the best they can but are increasingly over-whelmed with impossible caseloads. And they are often restricted by procedures in what they can and can’t do.

Mayor Panciuk and Councillor Sandison, of Belleville, joined the discussion. Belleville is particularly impacted because it’s where services are most readily available. Mayor Panciuk mentioned that unlike other levels of government, municipalities are constrained because they can’t run deficits and rely on property taxes. Yet municipalities are faced with increasing burdens. Mayor Panciuk mentioned that Belleville has opened a warming room, which has been in operation for three years, and has made significant financial commitments, eg, to the Grace Inn Shelter and Hospice Quinte.