Dryden might be the only major community in the Kenora district without an emergency shelter for the homeless, but it’s not without problems that will need to be addressed, says the CAO of the Kenora District Services Board.
Henry Wall says that despite the lack of a visual homelessness problem in Dryden, there is mounting anecdotal evidence to suggest the community is headed towards having to consider a shelter in the next few years.
“If we don’t do something we are going to see it on the streets,” said Wall. “We haven’t yet, but there are a growing number of individuals who are very precariously housed. It’s very concerning that we have youth in that situation, because the impact affects their performance in school, if they’re still going to school, and later on in life with employment. If we can’t get those supports in place now, we’re going to pay for it as a community.”
Wall blew my mind in a 40-minute conversation in early November around social housing and homelessness in the region where I posed to him the classic WASP-ish arguments I’ve heard all my life about keeping so-called ‘undesireables’ out of Dryden.
“Isn’t the reason why we don’t see homeless people on our streets is because we don’t have a shelter? If we build it, doesn’t it stand to reason that they will come?”
Underlying even that sentiment is the deeper notion that those eking out a meager existence on income assistance are content with taking advantage of the system.
Wall says that overcoming that ideological stance will be a challenge and a struggle for the community over the next few years.
“By providing more supports do you just get more people wanting to take advantage of those supports? We have staff whose job it is to ensure that nobody’s taking advantage of the system. Families don’t choose to live in poverty. Those who would rather just live off social assistance to survive, there are so few that you couldn’t even consider it as part of a sample size. Without a shelter, what is happening to the individuals that need it?
Anecdotally I can tell you that women are in the parking lots at night, trying to keep their housing. It’s happening at an alarming rate. We have teens who are couch surfing because there are substance or addiction issues in the household.”
In Sioux Lookout, 80 per cent of shelter users utilize the service less than six night per year, a figure that’s even lower in Kenora.
For that remaining 20 per cent, Wall says shelters are an important access point for society’s most vulnerable members to seek help and try to break the cycle of addictions and mental illness issues that are often contributing to their housing situation.
As a regional health care hub, Dryden is better positioned than other places to develop the support systems to help those who have nowhere left to turn.
It might not be what you want to look at in your pretty Wilderness City, but it’s something we as a community should work to challenge our entrenched beliefs on before we miss an opportunity to get ahead of an issue that festers just below the surface.
Something for the better angels of our nature to ponder over this holiday season.