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By Ruby Pratka

Local Journalism Initiative

Homelessness in the Estrie region rose by more than 60 per cent from 2018 to 2022, according to data released last week by the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services. On Oct. 12, 2022, trained volunteers fanned out across 13 regions of the province to meet with people living on the streets and get a reliable picture of how many people were experiencing homelessness; the age, gender and ethnic identity makeup of the homelessness population; why they were living on the streets and what services they had access to. The survey found a significant increase in the number of homeless people in the province, from a total of just under 5800 to a total of 10,000.

In Estrie, the number rose from 428 to 664 people, of which 79 per cent were men and about 75 per cent were over 30. Just over half of respondents cited substance abuse as one of the reasons they lost their last house or apartment; other common reasons were losing their home after a hospital stay or rehab program (24 per cent), eviction (20 per cent) or a stay in prison (20 per cent). Twelve per cent cited their mental health as a reason for being unable to stay in their home, and 11 per cent, insufficient income. Provincewide, eviction (23 per cent) and substance abuse (23 per cent) were the two most common reasons given.

The survey data was released days before a summit organized by the Union québécoise des municipalités (UMQ) in Quebec City, where mayors debated the safety of tent encampments and the usefulness of offering housing without social supports to those coming off the street. They noted that the housing crisis, inflation, jurisdictional wrangling, a labour shortage in the community services sector, a mental health crisis and a toxic drug supply had converged to give rise to homelessness and distress in parts of the province where they hadn’t previously been seen.

Associate minister for health and social services Lionel Carmant spoke at the summit promising $15.5 million in new funding for “immediate needs” including supervised housing. He said funding requests from municipalities for winter emergency shelters “would all be accepted,” and that the Ministry of Health and Social Services would conduct similar surveys of the homeless population every two years, rather than every four.

Cédric Champagne is the newly appointed executive director of Entrée Chez Soi Brome-Missisquoi, a Farnham-based nonprofit which helps people with mental health conditions who are at risk of homelessness find, and stay in, safe and affordable apartments. “Between 2021 and 2022 we went from having no one in Brome-Missisquoi [who was visibly homeless] to having several people, mainly middle-aged men,” he observed. “It’s not surprising, but it’s really sad. The housing crisis is definitely one of the reasons; combined with the opioid crisis, it’s made a really explosive combination. There are less and less resources for fewer and fewer people. We are seeing people we would normally send to Granby [for temporary housing], and we’re realizing there are no places in Granby. Sending them to larger cities isn’t necessarily viable, because their roots are here.”

Entrée Chez Soi currently administers five affordable apartments for people at risk of homelessness, and there is a waiting list. Champagne called on the provincial government to invest in affordable housing frontline intervention and wraparound supports for people coming off the streets, especially in the regions. “We would like to have rooming houses where we can have outreach workers from partner organizations [work with residents],” he said. “We don’t need a 24-7, year-round shelter, but we need a place where people can stay for the time it takes to place them in a better situation.” He added that due to the rising cost of living, a growing number of employed people were at risk of losing their homes. “We need to build more housing and change the [affordable] housing requirements,” he said. “People who work minimum-wage jobs are earning too much to be entitled to support, but too little to house themselves. If a person loses their home because of a rent increase, there’s not much we can do.”

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