Homeless population in Red Lake, Ont. declines; hopes to be model for Kenora

The success of a program in Red Lake, Ont., to get people off the streets and into transitional housing, should and can be replicated in other communities across the northwest, says the head of the Kenora District Services Board (KDSB).

Henry Wall, the CAO of the KDSB, said over the past few years, the priority in the community at the end of Highway 105 was to get people living homeless into transitional housing. That housing is affiliated with the Red Lake homeless shelter.

“[The transitional housing is] for individuals that are ready to start moving on, and so, it’s part of the shelter program, but it’s one step removed from having to be in a shelter,” he said.

The program is successful, he said, with nearly half of those who identified as homeless, no longer at the shelter. Wall said the number of people staying overnight at the facility is down to about five.

Wall said the goal is to learn from the experience in Red Lake, and attempt to replicate it in Kenora, which has a much higher homeless population.

“In the last five years, we’ve really had to look at how could we end homelessness. What are the missing links?”

“What we’ve found is that we have a serious gap in infrastructure,” Wall said, where shelters are available, but transitional housing and affordable housing is missing from the picture.

A big reason for the success, Wall said, is partnerships with groups in the community. In Red Lake, the district social services board worked with the Red Lake Non-Profit Housing Corporation to secure an existing building and renovate it. 

Community leadership, including mayor and council, has made the success possible, he said, pointing to re-zoning a building that was ideal for a shelter.

It also works with the Red Lake Indian Friendship Centre as well as the local hospital to provide programming for those at the facility.

Shelters in the northwest are busy. Facilities in Red Lake, Sioux Lookout, and Kenora had 17,000 nightly stays in 2019. About 9,000 of those stays were in Kenora.

The number of young people needing a place to stay has gone up sharply, Wall said, with 544 people between 16 and 24 needing a place overnight.

Wall said one other factor is people, particularly women, leaving northern communities who have no place to go.

There are many “numbers of people fleeing violence, ending up in urban centres, who have no home.”

He said some are also fleeing human trafficking, and need a safe place to go.

“How do we ensure that when families come to the shelter for help, that help is there, that the programs do what they need to do to support families, in particular women across our region.”

Wall said the KDSB has helped create new housing for women in Red Lake, working with the First Step Women’s Shelter to build a brand new facility. The building is about a year away from completion.

It’s “a thing that was only dreamed of a couple of years ago,” he said.

“We’re starting to see people shift, that we are reducing the number of individuals that are homeless in the community.”

“If things keep going the way things are, we are quite confident that in Red Lake, in the coming years, we will have almost ended homelessness.”

Wall said the solution comes with a price, with the KDSB spending about $2.9 million annually on programming and maintenance of transitional housing.

In the past three years, KDSB has spent about $40 million on capital projects for transitional housing.

He said other projects include transitional housing in Kenora, along with a bail-housing program.

Wall said while it could take a decade, he hopes Kenora is in the same situation, to eradicate homelessness as Red Lake is in now.

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