Rural Canada's 'visible homelessness' problem driven by pandemic, high cost of housing

Originally posted on CBC London

London -- Stephanie Elliott and Allison George are right on the edge, not knowing if they'll spend this winter housed or in a tent.

They live in Goderich, Ont., a small town north of London with postcard-worthy views of Lake Huron and a hot housing market. The couple are among the many rural Canadians, the new visible homeless, who face a second pandemic winter outside.

"Housing is an absolute crisis," says George, 34, who grew up in Blyth, Ont. "There is absolutely nothing."

Together they can afford their monthly $500 rent, a low rate that's becoming increasingly rare in small-town Ontario and beyond.

George has a part-time job cleaning at a grocery store; Elliott survives on the Ontario Disability Support Program. Their choices are limited: to purchase a winterized tent or stay in the only apartment they can find, one they both describe as unsuitable.

They spend a lot of their time outdoors in Goderich's Courthouse Square along with their friend Candy Middelkamp.

Elliott said she scans Kijiji and other online sites daily, but most of the one-bedroom units listed are $1,300 to $1,600, well beyond their budget.

For now, they are stuck in a county where the average home price more than doubled in the last five years, from $264, 000 to to $594,000, according to data from the Canadian Real Estate Association. It jumped by $150,000 in a one-year period from 2020 to 2021.

Homelessness no longer hidden

"We're seeing more tent encampments pop up, and more visible homelessness in the rural areas," said Natasha Pei, manager of cities with Tamarack Institute's Communities Ending Poverty.

In the past, homelessness was more hidden, with people couch surfing, sleeping in cars or living in buildings without heat or running water.

The pandemic revealed pre-existing problems and worsened others, such as rising rent, addictions, lack of diverse housing, heightened mental health demands and transportation barriers faced by rural communities.

Then, an unexpected trend began: urban buyers started fleeing the city in search of wide open spaces.

"We're seeing more people from the cities creating a boom on housing prices in rural communities," said Pei.

"Because they're going remote, they're able to move into these communities without needing to commute anymore and they're just driving up the costs."

This has contributed to the disappearance of rental stock, squeezing out vulnerable people who depend on cheaper rent.

"It seems like there's lot of evictions happening where landlords are selling their rental stock, which is typically a bit more affordable, said Erin Schooley, homelessness program supervisor for the County of Huron. "And they're not being re-entered back on the market.

"It's also even more complex for folks who may be more vulnerable, or compromised in any way, to be taken on by landlords when their complexities are significant."

Rural people staying at home

Another trend is also taking shape, with people from rural areas staying close to home and not leaving for major cities, according to Pei.

"Goderich is my home," said Stephen Webster, 59, who has lived in shelters across Ontario, including Toronto, Windsor and Brampton.

He drives a truck part time, when his health allows, and uses that money to support his father in a long-term care home in nearby Clinton, Ont. What's left is enough to get by on the street.

"I know people. I have places I can sometimes couch surf for two or three days," he said.  

It's a trend that Shawn Walker thinks could help the problem. For years, people experiencing homelessness in rural areas have left for cities to access services, support and shelter. Walker runs Huron Turning Point, a transition home for men in Exeter, Ont.

"There's probably a better chance of them getting to permanent, stable housing in a community that they understand and know, and can be supported by, as opposed to sending them off to another city and a whole different area where they may not have connections," Walker said.

The home has helped 25 men move from the street to stable housing in the past five years. While it may be better for people experiencing homelessness to stay in their communities, it doesn't solve the problem of a lack of affordable rentals.

"Our stays are now longer than they have been in the past, because there's guys that are home right now that are ready to go to into an apartment," said Walker. "They've got the services they need, they're doing well, everything is good. It's just finding that apartment that doesn't exist."

Call for urban-rural anti-homelessness strategy

"All of rural Canada has these issues and they're really working in isolation trying to deal with it," said Dee Ann Benard, executive director of the Rural Development Network.

She's calling for an urban-rural strategy that addresses the problem across the country, firstly by sharing data to get a clear picture of migration patterns.

The Ontario government directed counties and regions to count the number of people who are homeless in their areas by Dec. 15, in order to help develop a list of each person's individual needs.

Elliott, who has struggled with addiction and family violence, has a more personal request.

"I just wish people would have more compassion and understanding toward people who have less than them. They don't understand trauma is what causes this," she said.

"We've all been through things out here. Nobody chooses this."