Kingston resident Brian Geddes “has not had a locked door behind [him]” for the past three years.
In an interview with The Journal, Geddes described his struggles with securing a lease despite “having perfect rent records […] and references.” He cited a lack of effective resources for unhoused people like himself for the reason why he cannot secure a lease.
“I was on a housing list for the Kingston community for seven months [and] they lost my file,” he said.
Until recently, Geddes received support from the Integrated Care Hub, but because of the cold, he said it’s no longer an option to live outside of the hub.
He described the unhoused experience as one of constant trials and tribulations, and said his situation is representative of the broader homelessness crisis in Kingston.
“I’m subject to theft, drug abuse, violence, the works. Domestic violence even as a homeless person. It sounds ironic, but it’s all prevalent in my life,” Geddes said. “I’m stuck in a rut and can’t get out of it.”
In a report, United Way Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington found there were 207 unhoused people in Kingston in 2021, as compared to 152 in 2018. Out of the unhoused people surveyed, 67 per cent were adults and 26 per cent were youth aged between 16 and 24 years.
A Global News report from last April found many shelters in Kingston were operating at levels nearing or at full capacity.
Jane Bailey, operations administrator at Ryandale Transitional Housing, told The Journal in an interview residents “share congregate living space” and “have their own lockable rooms.”
Ryandale offers stable housing to male-identifying people for up to a year. While not a shelter, Ryandale is at full capacity like many shelters in Kingston.
Bailey said Ryandale has “a high number of people who are homeless” and a “very low availability of apartments.” Ryandale currently has a waitlist for those who are interested in transitional housing.
During the interview Bailey’s phone rang with a call from a person inquiring about Ryandale’s services. Despite wanting to offer the caller good news, Bailey informed the caller Ryandale is unable to take anyone right now and put them on the waitlist.
Phone calls like these are a common occurrence for Bailey. “We get many, many, many phone calls, especially this time of year with people looking for accommodation. And because we do have housing available for up to a year, we don’t often have vacancies that open up,” Bailey said.
Justyna Szewczyk-El Jassem, PhD ’24, currently serves as the vice-president of community Relations at PSAC 901, the labour union representing graduate teaching assistants and fellows at Queen’s. Szewczyk-El Jassem represents PSAC 901 at meetings organized by the Kingston and District Labour Council.
“I don’t think [the Kingston housing crisis] is a homelessness problem. I think it’s a problem with housing and there are many unhoused people in Kingston,” Szewczyk-El Jassem said in an interview with The Journal.
Speaking to why there isn’t “enough good quality, affordable housing” in Kingston, Szewczyk-El Jassem said Queen’s is exacerbating housing unaffordability by increasing enrollment every year and consequently overburdening an already saturated housing market.
In January 2021, The Journal reported Queen’s enrolled 26,309 students in the 2020-21 academic year compared to the 25,260 students enrolled in the 2019-20 academic year, representing an increase of over four per cent.
“Nightmare” is among the first words Szewczyk-El Jassem uses when describing Kingston’s housing situation for graduate students during the pandemic.
“I can tell you that trying to move to Kingston in the middle of the pandemic was a nightmare. I’m lucky to live in community housing, but I know from friends that the prices have gone up [during the pandemic].”
Jay Nowak, former program supervisor at Home Base Housing and current executive director at the Kingston Youth Shelter, said he spent most of his time at Home Base Housing “being out on the street,” trying to support unhoused people.
His work with Home Base Housing allowed him to connect people without shelter to refuge in a safe and affordable environment. Nowadays, at the Kingston Youth Shelter, Nowak does more behind-the-scenes work, like securing financial support by organizing fundraisers and applying for grants. Well-versed in the nuances of homelessness among both adults and youth, Nowak underlined how the pandemic impacted both unhoused youth and adults.
According to Nowak, the pandemic-era stay-at-home orders “forced a lot of families to have to deal with some of their issues in house if the kids were not in school.” As a result, the pandemic led to greater homelessness among youth, he said.
A 2022 literature review found the global COVID-19 restrictions exacerbated risk factors for family violence—a key contributor to homelessness among youth. Restrictions such as social distancing requirements and room capacity limits impacted the number of beds available to people in need, Nowak added.
“Unfortunately, because of restrictions, the number [of beds at the Home Base Housing] dropped all the way down [from 25] to 16.”
In other words, shelters like Home Base Housing had no choice but to scale back their intake of unhoused adults. Nowak also said pandemic-era rules like the indoor mask mandates resulted in many unhoused adults refusing to enter Home Base Housing’s shelter.
At Ryandale, COVID-19 restrictions transformed the social environment. Many residents used the community meal programs at shelters and charities like St. George’s Cathedral, Martha’s Table, and St. Vincent de Paul Society of Kingston.
Throughout the height of the pandemic, these organizations went from offering dine-in to takeout-only services, which eliminated a key opportunity for social interaction. The lack of connection and communication with others increased the feeling of isolation and loneliness among Ryandale’s residents, Bailey said.
“The effects of this isolation have led to a big increase in depression in my residents. And a lot of pessimism, so we’re still dealing with the fallout of that, and finding other ways for people to engage and be social is difficult.”
Ivan Stoiljkovic, general secretary of the Katarokwi Union of Tenants and a former Kingston mayoral candidate in the 2022 municipal elections, believes the pandemic actually prevented homelessness among many adults.
“[The] pandemic may have fended off some of the worst effects of the inflationary forces because there was a moratorium on evictions,” he said in an interview with The Journal.
Nowak noted a rise in acuity levels—defined as a measure of the severity of one’s medical condition(s) or illness(es)—among unhoused people in Kingston.
In his experience, Nowak has found shelters like Home Base Housing are seeing “more people with unmedicated mental health issues who are through [their] doors.”
Recently, he said, the people using Home Base Housing’s services are “dabbling in harder illicit drugs than normal.” Compared to soft drugs like marijuana, hard drugs like fentanyl are rising at a rapid rate among the house’s residents.
Nowak has also observed a greater use of fentanyl at the Kingston Youth Shelter. The two main factors behind the higher rate are more awareness about the Kingston Youth Shelter and more youth “who have dabbled into the street life,” he said.
Specifically, youths have begun to view “street life” with more appeal because they believe it provides them with more freedom than staying at home with their guardians.
Greater rates of substance use among unhoused people relative to the general population have heightened the homelessness crisis, according to Nowak.
“When you are having difficulty realizing reality, because you’re under, you know, drug-induced psychosis, it’s very hard to have a conversation with those individuals about housing because they’re fixated on their addiction, unfortunately. And that takes up the majority of their time.”
Bailey’s assessment of illicit drug use among unhoused people was in line with Nowak’s observation.
“Fentanyl has really changed the face of homelessness in Ontario, across Canada,” she said.
When specifying fentanyl’s impact, Bailey said fentanyl has high misuse potential, so those using fentanyl “are much more likely to overdose and die in isolation.”
Mental health and drug use are a central feature of everyday life for many unhoused people and their isolation from a community shelter, such as Home Base Housing, is more likely to lead to an overdose, Bailey said. Furthermore, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported in December most deaths due to illicit drug use are linked to fentanyl.
An aging unhoused population has also presented new challenges to institutions like Ryandale. In 1990, approximately 11 per cent of the unhoused population was older than 50 years. Today, that number is 50 percent. With an aging unhoused population comes more health issues, from drug addiction to alcoholism, that unhoused people disproportionately face.
Ryandale is also facing staffing shortages that Bailey characterizes as an “endemic problem across the sector.” Bailey attributes burnout among unhoused service providers as a contributing factor to the staffing shortages.
A November 2020 online survey conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, which polled unhoused service providers, found that 59.7 per cent of participants were experiencing “moderate levels of burnout.”
In April 2019, the federal government launched “Reaching Home,” a community-based program that funds and coordinates homelessness prevention and reduction efforts across the country.
According to Bailey, Ryandale has greatly benefitted from the funding. She appreciates governments have recognized homelessness as a problem, but believes they must acknowledge that “mental health and addictions are fuelling a large aspect of homelessness in Canada.”
Nowak echoed this sentiment and wants to see more funding for housing specifically intended for “individuals who have mental health or addictions issues.”
In April 2022, the Ontario government announced new funding that will help construct 1,200 new supporting housing units across the province. Supportive housing units are generally operated by non-profits, and are staffed by people trained in social work and rehabilitation.
Szewczyk-El Jassem believes Queen’s should take a more proactive role in addressing homelessness in Kingston by prioritizing Community Housing, the entity that manages Queen’s-owned student rental properties. She said the organization should be improved upon and made more accessible to students with addiction and mental health problems.
Furthermore, Szewczyk-El Jassem noted that by building more residences that predominantly house first-years, Queen’s is actually “pushing out more people to the [housing] market later on.”
“At some point, those people will have to find housing,” she said.
Szewczyk-El Jassem believes Queen’s should explore more efficient uses of its funds in addressing the housing shortage rather than build more single room units.
A previous version of this article had two instances in which Justyna Szewczyk-El Jassem’s name was spelled incorrectly and has since been corrected.
The Journal regrets the error
affordable housing, Homelessness, PSAC 901
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