Homelessness in suburban places like Port Credit can be largely invisible.
“That sounds really interesting…but there aren’t any homeless people around here. Not really. Right?”
I often get this response when I tell friends and neighbours what I do as a volunteer for the Compass, a foodbank and outreach centre located in Port Credit (part of south Mississauga). When folks hear I am volunteering at a foodbank, they assume I’m sorting cans of beans. They are surprised to learn that I am part of a small group focusing on advocacy related to housing and homelessness in our neighbourhood.
I have called the Port Credit area home for almost 10 years, and felt called to do this work after hearing an announcement about the Compass’ advocacy needs during Sunday worship at Christ First (my United Church congregation) in 2018. Port Credit, so-called because it’s where the Credit River meets Lake Ontario, used to be largely industrial. With its proximity to beautiful lakefront parks and transit, it’s now a pretty desirable area to live in. The harbour, once used for shipping, is now a marina full of pleasure boats. The red-and-white lighthouse is a tourist attraction of sorts.
New builds of condos are common. A small enclave of seniors’ townhomes currently being constructed one block from the Compass boasts floorplans starting from $1.3 million. A two-bedroom rental apartment in a nearby high rise is listed for $1,850 per month (as of January 2020). Consider that Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits allow for a maximum of $497 per month for shelter for a single person, and residents of Peel Region can expect to wait almost six years for subsidized housing.
Housing prices have gone through the roof; for many Compass clients, this makes the cost of renting even a room in this community simply beyond reach. From 2018–2019, the number of Compass clients who self-identify as homeless increased by 55 percent. Clients increasingly identified the cost and availability of housing as their biggest source of anxiety—surpassing even food security.
Homelessness in suburban places like Port Credit can be largely invisible. Compass clients say they camp in nearby parks, where it’s easier to avoid being ticketed by police. They live in their cars. They “couch surf.” But many of them feel that they’re being pushed out of the community that has been their home for years, sometimes decades.
An often-touted solution to finding housing one can afford is to simply relocate to a more affordable area. For many Compass clients, moving away would further exacerbate their living situations. Moving is stressful, time-consuming, and expensive. Many have lived in the Mississauga-Lakeshore area long-term and would like to remain near family and friends, known support services (including the Compass), education, employment, church, and other supports.
The Compass was established by local Christian churches as an outreach ministry in 2002, and these churches continue to be a major source of volunteers and financial support. Our small advocacy group ranges in age from a recent university grad to retirees. We identify as Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, and United. We are working to respond to immediate housing needs of Compass clients while attempting to “move the needle” on affordable housing policy with all levels of government—most recently by creating resources related to the October 2019 Federal Election for use by Mississauga-Lakeshore voters.
Our professional researcher is working on a project to gather data about Compass clients. Our project manager coordinates a massive “survival kit” program to help equip those living/sleeping outside in the winter. Our accountant works tirelessly on grant proposals. One retiree went to the local outdoor equipment store this past October and “demanded” (likely in her sweet, grandmotherly way) that the store manager sell hiking backpacks for the survival kits to her at less than half of the retail price. (Yes, she got the discount.)
Our chair liaises with local politicians and writes letters, even though he admits to liking the “boots on the ground” work with clients more. He has helped to convince a few local churches to shelter Compass clients overnight when winter temperatures plummet—a program currently in its second year.
We realize that these programs, while vital and immediately needed, are not acceptable long-term solutions to these affordable housing and homelessness crises. We will continue to pressure government and others to support human rights-based solutions grounded in a housing first approach to these crises.
I do this work because I am called by Christ to love my neighbour. I also realize that I have lived in Port Credit for fewer years than many long-term Compass clients. By choosing this area as my home, was I part of the affordability crisis—even in some small way? Perhaps. But I will continue to help, as well as hold my neighbours in prayer:
“My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.”
— Isaiah 32:18