New advocacy group for the homeless lays out demands on City of Barrie, County of Simcoe

'We're a little tired of asking politely for people's basic human rights to be met,' says BHHJN spokesperson

The Barrie Housing and Homelessness Justice Network (BHHJN) says it is seeking accountability from the City of Barrie and the County of Simcoe.

The group is made up of individuals who work in the homelessness and housing sector. BHHJN has been endorsed by more than 100 people and several organizations including the Busby Centre, Ryan’s Hope, Grace United Church, and the Elizabeth Fry Society.

“We just need better services for people who are experiencing homelessness,” says BHHJN spokesperson Jennifer van Gennip.

On its website, the group says it is seeking immediate action and long-term sustainable solutions to address the predictable yet premature and preventable deaths resulting from the inadequacies and injustices in the shelter and housing sector.

“In consultation with service providers and people with lived experience of homelessness in our city, we have developed a list of eight demands,” BHHJN says on its website.

There is no apology from van Gennip for the bluntness of their messaging.

“Part of the reason we went with strong language and called it demands is there’s just been a real lack of accountability,” she says. “Some of the housing services come from the City of Barrie, but all the social services are done through the county.”

This also includes the funding of shelters in Barrie such as The Salvation Army and Youth Haven.

“There is just a split of accountability,” says van Gennip. “It’s really hard to provide any community accountability and to get any accountability from the county and city.”

van Gennip claims they were not able to get on the agenda for the last couple of city council meetings before the October 24 municipal election because some city councillors felt their language was too strong.

“We were hoping at the city level to get a report on what’s being done because we know some things are being done, and some efforts are being made. We want a report, so we knew what is being done, and we were asking the city to support our request to the county for that same level of accountability.”

As a group, van Gennip says they talked about softening the language.

“That has gotten us nowhere, and we’re a little tired of asking politely for people’s basic human rights to be met.”

She accepts the fact that when it comes to housing, municipalities do need support at the provincial and federal levels, but van Gennip says that doesn’t take the city or county off the hook.

“Housing is a human right and the municipalities are politely declining to acknowledge it as such,” she says.” It’s in federal law and international law, and if you choose not to acknowledge it, you still have obligations, and that obligation isn’t that you will end homelessness overnight, but the obligation is that you will make steady progress toward the realization of housing as a right.”

Demands made by BHHJN:

  • City of Barrie to pause enforcement of the “no camping” by-law in cases where individuals have set up alternate housing in the form of tents or other structures as a survival response to the lack of affordable housing options.
  • Barrie Fire to distribute fire safety supplies and provide fire safety training as needed in encampments.
  • City of Barrie to issue an inclement weather alert when necessary and the City of Barrie/County of Simcoe to fund/open inclement weather sites during alerts.
  • City of Barrie to work progressively toward 24/7/365 public washroom and drinking water access.
  • County of Simcoe to conduct an external audit of all funded homelessness services and supports, including shelter providers, with input from people with lived/living experience and/or shelter users.
  • County of Simcoe to use the results of the audit to review and update the Emergency Shelter Standards from 2003, to include harm reduction measures as the standard within the shelter system, and in consultation with shelter providers, shelter users and other community homelessness and housing stakeholders, and conduct ongoing external audits as needed to ensure standards are being met.
  • County of Simcoe to immediately increase rent supplements, rent-geared-to-income, and affordable housing options, and fast-track an overhaul of rent supplement and  Housing Retention Fund process, so applicants get proof of entitlement to a specific amount before they start their housing search. 
  • County of Simcoe to identify partners and funding to develop and implement a street health program.

Banner image: 150 tents were pitched along Lakeshore Drive in Barrie (May 2022) by the Busby Centre and the Elizabeth Fry Society to represent what they say is the growing number of people who are homeless in the community. (FILE PHOTO)