Ontario’s Big City Mayors meeting in Blenheim on June 14, 2024. (Photo by Paul Pedro)

Ontario’s Big City Mayors cry for more housing, homeless cash

Ontario’s Big City Mayors (OBCM) are calling on the upper levels of government to step up with more funding to deal with the mental health, addictions, and the homeless crisis in their communities.

The 29 mayors met in Blenheim on Friday. Together, they represent nearly 70 percent of Ontario’s population.

OBCM Chair and Burlington Mayor Marianne Meed Ward spoke on behalf of the mayors, who said they're all having the same issues in their municipalities. Ward said policy changes and a point person to take charge of the issue are also needed.

She told reporters homelessness is a humanitarian crisis and municipalities can't solve it alone, adding provincial and federal government action on this issue is long overdue. Ward said the time for talking is over and action is needed now because people are dying on the streets.

"The time is now to act. This crisis is only growing and it is a very dangerous situation, not only for people living in encampments, but for all of the residents that live around those encampments. It's a public safety issue, it's a public health issue," said Mayor Ward.

Ward said supportive housing is cheaper in the long run than hospital stays, which she quoted as $1,500 a day.

OBCM Vice-Chair and London Mayor Josh Morgan said supportive housing solutions work and he has the data to back it up. Mayor Morgan noted one individual went to the hospital in London 221 times in six months, but only went three times after getting into supportive housing.

"We're now getting data to show a significant decline in emergency room use, 70 per cent for those who are in that space. A significant decline in contacts with police and draws on emergency services like land ambulance use when people are going to the hospital," said Mayor Morgan.

Morgan also said another individual had 800 interactions with London police in a year, but had zero after getting into supportive housing.

Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said downtowns are often falsely perceived as unsafe and riddled with high crime when homelessness, mental health, and addiction issues are on full display and that poses challenges for economic development and existing businesses.

"Residents don't want to go downtown, but our crime stats don't show there's a crime problem. But the behaviours associated with mental health and addiction often have the same chilling effect as if there was a major crime problem," Mayor Dilkens said.

Toronto Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie said municipalities are doing the best they can to deal with the homeless issue with the little funding they have.

"It shouldn't be funded on the municipal tax base. The other problem is when you help somebody in need, we have nowhere to bring them. We don't have 24-7 crisis centres that can support them and we certainly don't have enough treatment. We're doing our part," said Deputy Mayor McKelvie.

Richmond Hill Mayor David West said some municipal priorities are falling by the wayside because the tax base is funding issues outside of their responsibility.

"As all of these things are going on, it creates more and more pressures on things that are our core responsibility as opposed to all the myriad of things that we're being asked to fund that are not our core responsibilities," Mayor West explained.

Chatham-Kent Mayor Darrin Canniff said he got some good ideas around best practices for homeless shelters that the municipality could look at. Canniff noted that all options are on the table, including designated encampment sites.

The mayors are also raising a red flag about the criteria and data used for the provincial funding program to build houses faster. Mayor Ward calls the data provided by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation that has an impact on funding "wildly inaccurate."

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