Windsor

City gives itself a B grade so far when it comes to meeting housing and homelessness goals

A global pandemic, hot housing market and record inflation rates have all impacted progress on the city's 10-year plan. 

A pandemic, hot housing market and inflation rates have all hindered progress on the 10-year plan

A photo shows a few empty shelter beds.
The Downtown Mission is one of the shelter providers in Windsor. This year marks the halfway point in the city's Housing and Homelessness Master Plan, which spans a decade. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

The head of Windsor's housing department says that he thinks the city deserves a B mid-term grade as it reaches the halfway point in its housing and homelessness master plan. 

With the plan, the city has aimed to house half of people experiencing chronic homelessness by 2024. But the global pandemic, hot housing market and record inflation rates have made it difficult for those in Windsor's housing and homelessness sector to keep pace.

These issues have flooded local resources beyond what was anticipated when the city released its 10-year Home Together: Windsor Essex Housing and Homelessness Master Plan in 2019. 

"Rents were in a different place, affordability was in a different place in terms of housing and availability. As well, no one could have predicted COVID," said Kirk Whittal, the city's executive director of housing and children services. 

"These are all things that have impacted the plan." 

Whittal knows that each of these curve balls have pushed the city to adapt — allowing them to better collaborate with community partners and create services that weren't necessarily part of the plan. The Housing and Homelessness Help Hub (H4) is an example. 

There was progress, he says, but there's room for improvement. 

"I think we could do better, and that's what I'm looking forward to in the next five years," he said. 

A man stands smiling inside of Windsor's city hall.
Kirk Whittal is the City of Windsor's executive director of housing and children's services. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

So what does the need actually look like? And has the city met some of the targets it set out to reach by 2024?

As the city enters the plan's halfway point, CBC News took a pulse check on where progress sits and whether any revisions are in the works. 

Some of the 2024 goals include: 

  • By 2024, 50 per cent of people experiencing chronic homelessness will be housed with supports.
  • By 2024, 90 per cent of tenants receiving support services will retain their tenancy for a minimum of 12 months. 
  • By 2024, 70 more people will be housed through Housing First programs and supported to retain their housing for at least six months.  

For the first target, the city had set a cumulative goal of housing 342 people over the five years. To date, 228 people have been supported. That's 66 per cent of the original goal. 

That's "not there, but we certainly are striving to get better at it," said Whittal. 

Overall, the number of people who are homeless in Windsor-Essex has increased — though Whittal notes that this is a hard number to pinpoint. 

In October 2021, there was 469 households experiencing homelessness, compared to 717 households in October 2023 — an increase of 35 per cent.

'The need is spiking'

Between October 2021 and October 2023, Whittal added that 1,377 households that were experiencing homelessness found housing. 

"The need is spiking," said Lady Laforet, executive director of the Welcome Centre Shelter for Women. 

"The demand increased at a rate that we did not necessarily anticipate, so we were not really prepared for the perfect storm of so many factors coming down." 

LISTEN: Windsor gives itself a grade of B midway through a 10-year homelessness plan. 

Lady Laforet, the executive director of the Welcome Centre Shelter, gives her grade on homelessness in Windsor in response to the city's.

In 2022, Laforet says the shelter had to turn away about 300 people as it was at capacity most times. Last year, they turned away about 800 people. 

Laforet says she's noticed over the years is that it's not as easy to get people housed. As a result, she says people are staying in shelter much longer than they should. 

'Shelter is not meant to be housing'

"Shelter is not meant to be housing ... and we're seeing families coming into shelter who are no longer here for 30 days. They might be here for 60 days or 90 days."

A sign reads Welcome Centre Shelter for Women and Families.
The Welcome Centre Shelter for Women and Families moved to this location, giving it more space. Despite this, their executive director says they are still at capacity most days. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

And according to shelter providers, people with more complex needs are entering the system at a time when resources aren't as readily available.

"The needs were a lot less, five years ago," said Rukshini Ponniah-Goulin, executive director of the Downtown Mission. 

"Five years ago, we didn't see the level of mental health issues or addiction issues in people staying in shelter." 

Ponniah-Goulin says because of this, her staff are sometimes forced to wear multiple hats. They are shelter workers who also have to be personal support workers, therapists and nurses. 

Pandemic got in the way of housing goals

As for the goal of people keeping their tenancies for six and 12 months, Whittal says that since 2019, the Windsor Essex Housing Connections Team has provided first-time housing for 969 people.

Over the years, there has been a 62 per cent success rate with meeting this goal — which Whittal says is skewed because the COVID-19 years limited city support. 

But in 2023 alone, 92 per cent of tenants housed with support services kept their tenancy for 12 months. 

Since 2019, there has been 178 new affordable housing units built in Windsor-Essex. Additionally, the city says that since 2019, 594 new households have been supported through housing benefit programs, like the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit and Windsor Essex Housing Benefit.

But the affordable housing wait list has grown by thousands. 

As of November 2023, 8,511 households were waiting for affordable housing. That's compared to 5,953 in 2019, an increase of 42 per cent. 

"We are outpaced by 40 years on building purpose built housing to support low-income and vulnerable people," said Laforet. 

Shelter spots added for people with pets

Targets aside, there are other achievements the city is celebrating. 

Whittal says the city is collaborating better with community partners to deliver housing services.

Laforet says the Welcome Centre's move to a bigger spot was a step in the right direction. 

A woman stands in front of a board.
Rukshini Ponniah-Goulin is the executive director of one of Windsor's largest shelters, the Downtown Mission. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

There were also eight pet-friendly shelter spots added in a system that previously had none, and an emphasis on the health of people through a shelter health initiative, Laforet said. 

For Ponniah-Goulin, she says designated warming centres during the cold months have been important additions. 

As well, she says that the Downtown Mission was able to get someone from Windsor's Housing Information Services to stay on site and directly connect with people in need of housing. In 2022, she says that person housed 51 people. 

What's coming in the second half

The city and shelter providers hope that the lessons from the past five years help inform the years ahead. 

Whittal says the city's big focus is on creating more supportive housing. That's housing that comes with social supports, like those for mental health, addictions or employment. 

Laforet says getting more housing could involve looking at city land use planning, and changing bylaws to help "speed up the process."

She also wants to see more lobbying for increased income support, which could help in preventing people from "becoming homeless in the first place." 

"[We should be] really focusing heavily in the next five years on diversion efforts, on doing what we can to stop the flow of people into the shelter system."

Whittal says the province asked municipalities to submit 10-year plans, which would involve a five-year check-in. 

Whittal anticipates that could happen sometime this year. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer La Grassa

Videojournalist

Jennifer La Grassa is a videojournalist at CBC Windsor. She is particularly interested in reporting on healthcare stories. Have a news tip? Email jennifer.lagrassa@cbc.ca

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