Thursday, November 6, 2008

Week-Long Protests to Fight Homelessness Wraps

About 10 local activists spent the week protesting the lack of permanent emergency housing for homeless youth in Guelph by erecting a tent city in St. George’s Square. With nothing to protect them from the cold except for a few canvas tents and a blue tarp, the group hoped to draw attention to the City’s as yet unfulfilled promise to replace the old Change Now Youth Drop-In Centre with a new, permanent shelter. Under a banner stating, “City Hall Lies - Homeless Youth: Fight to Win!” the protestors hoped a practical and peaceful demonstration might light a fire under City Hall to deliver, especially with winter coming.

This story began in June 2007 when Change Now was suddenly and unceremoniously closed. The Youth Drop-In and Emergency Shelter was located in the basement of Norfolk United Church and on the morning of Friday June 15, members of Change Now’s Board of Directors showed up and ordered everyone out. No reasons were given as the youth were herded out and the staff were given pink slips. An impromptu protest took place in St. George’s Square all weekend, as no answer were given as to why, and the doors to Change Now remained shut with nothing but the words: “Change Now is permanently closed” on the door. The exact reasons were never given. At the time, all board co-president Li Peckan could say was, “The programs at Change Now were no longer able to provide for the needs of the young people.”

Change Now was jointly funded by The United Way and Wellington County Social Services. In the wake of the closure, Morris Twist, then executive director of the United Way, said that it was his hope that a new shelter would be open by September ’07. Of course, this didn’t happen. The concern on the part of the city and all organizations involved was money. Norfolk United didn’t charge rent for Change Now, but wherever a new youth shelter lie, then chances were that rent would have to be an expense taken into consideration. Temporary provisions were set up at Wyndham House and Our Place, and the former Change Now funds were funnelled into these outlets.

Local anti-poverty activists continued to push for a new shelter saying that these supposed temporary measures were no where near enough. At council, the debate mostly focused on funding and how much each stakeholder would/could invest in the development of a new shelter for youth in Guelph. After months of wrangling, the city decided to go it alone as the sole municipal funder, but still working with the Province and the United Way, and get moving on finding a new youth shelter with an opening date of October 2008. Obviously, since last week was the end of October, the inaugural did not happen as scheduled.

However there is a site, bought by the city, that’s ready to serve as the new shelter. The thing of it is that the house at 18 Norfolk Street requires some major renovations in order for it to become safe and liveable. These improvements aren’t expected to be completed until the spring. The Norfolk Street house is currently expected to be opened in May 2009 with an initial offering of eight beds, which may be increased depending on zoning issues. A temporary shelter at 65 Delhi Street, set-up by Wyndham House through $230,000 from the city, will have 12 beds available to youth aged 16 to 21 seeking emergency shelter

But back at tent city, protestors are keen to point out that, according to some estimates, between 150 to 200 homeless young people in Guelph. Many of those people, since the closure of Change Now, have had almost no support, and more importantly, no where to go. “When Change Now got shut down, they promised us a new shelter,” Jeff Way, 25, told the Guelph Mercury. “That shelter ended up not being opened, and here it is, a year and half later. They tell us they have another shelter, but it might take a year to do the renovations.”

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