Just over 10 years ago, I produced an item for The Agenda’s predecessor, Studio 2, called "Homelessness in Muskoka."
Back in 2002, a few newspaper stories had surfaced about the insufficient number of rental units available in the Muskoka region, low vacancy rates, and disproportionately high rents. In an attempt to update the story for TVO’s special "Why Poverty?" series, I looked for more current data, and found that not much has changed. In fact, when I spoke to Laura Redman of the Gravenhurst YMCA, she felt that the situation was likely worse than it was 10 years ago. “There is so much homelessness in rural communities in Ontario right now,” she said.
Within the Muskoka region, Gravenhurst has the most social housing, and many of those households are led by single women. “There are more people on wait lists for social housing in Gravenhurst than there are people currently living in social housing,” said Redmond. “I’ve been working on a project called the women and economic development project for the last few months and our main concern is how to get people fed.”
After speaking with someone from the Gravenhurst Salvation Army, which runs the town's food bank, it was confirmed that the food bank is increasingly busy, especially throughout the fall and winter.
The biggest difference between homelessness in rural communities and urban ones remains visibility. In rural Ontario, people who can't find appropriate housing spend winters couch-surfing rather than living on the street; because winters are so harsh, street life is simply not an option. This lack of visibility is likely one of the main reasons why nothing's changed. Where would the political will come from when the members of society that have most of the power to make change happen, i.e., the middle class, can’t even see the problem?
The family shelter that is featured in the piece above had just opened in the fall of 2001, and has very rarely been unoccupied in the decade since. It allows families in a bind to live rent-free for one month, so that they might save enough money to pay first and last month’s rent on an apartment at a new location. Another emergency housing unit opened in Huntsville shortly after the piece was finished and it too is very much utilized today, as it was in the preceding decade.
One thing is different: the situation for some local, seasonal employees has been made more difficult because of federal legislation that allows resorts in the Muskokas to hire temporary foreign workers on short-term contracts. This, coupled with changes to employment insurance benefits, means that some of the seasonal work that Muskoka residents benefited from for years is now out of reach for some residents that once relied on it.
Perhaps the most worrying discovery I made while updating the piece was the fact that you’re now seeing a second generation of poverty in Muskoka. People, girls especially, who have grown up in public housing are becoming mothers and remaining in social housing as adults. Their children will now grow up in social housing and possibly repeat the cycle. After speaking with Joy McCormick of the Muskoka Women’s Advocacy group, I found out that this was not actually a new situation, but rather something Muskoka has been struggling with for many years.
One final note: there are no homeless shelters for men in the Muskoka region. The closest shelters for men are in Orillia and Barrie. That isn't to say there are no homeless men in Muskoka, just that they are almost completely invisible.