By Mike Anderson

Amanda, 36, and her dog Bella, a 12-year-old Pug, have been homeless for almost two years.

They were living in the woods behind Sobeys in Sutton, but their campsite was vandalized.

So, for the past three months, home has been a small tent in the Jackson’s Point gazebo.

“People come, and they donate meals. People came out of the Lake Simcoe Arms and gave me leftovers. Somebody is always giving us kibble. And I had a firefighter drop off 30 litres of water,” Amanda said. “If it weren’t for the community, I wouldn’t be able to survive.”

Amanda has been trying to get a shelter bed for months, but it hasn’t been easy because she doesn’t own a cell phone.

“Homeless people don’t have cell phones. So they can’t apply for programs, and the programs can’t reach them,” she said.

Still, with the help of friends and case workers, Amanda was able to call on average two times a day for two months straight.

But that still didn’t get her a bed. That’s because demand for women’s shelter beds far outstrips supply in York Region.

The closest emergency shelters for homeless women are Belinda’s Place and Inn From The Cold, both in Newmarket, more than 30kms away.

Belinda’s Place has 28 beds, while Inn From The Cold, only open during the winter season, has a single woman’s sleeping room, accommodating up to 5 women at a time.

Lyndsay Craine, a frontline staff member with the Salvation Army’s Youth Shelter in Sutton, is spending her off-hours helping Amanda get permanent housing through York Region. But that’s going to take time.

Meanwhile, Craine has managed to source a tent, sleeping bag and other personal needs items for Amanda.

She’s also arranged for Amanda to shower and do laundry at the Youth Shelter.

“I had to get permission because she’s over our age mandate, which is 26,” she said.

Craine says it’s hard to estimate how many people are homeless in Georgina, as most are hidden from plain view.

“People don’t think there’s a problem in York Region because of the hidden homeless. A lot of people who are homeless tend to couch surf,” she said.

“It’s unlike in the city where you’ll see everybody in the open. It’s not in your face, so everybody knows the problem. But we have a large homeless population.”

“It’s not like we have a tent city,” Amanda adds. “You’re not going to find 30 tents in a park. But they are out there. They’re sleeping in ATMs, parks or at night in their cars at the Timmy’s parking lot.”

Amanda, who grew up in Sutton and had a place to live for ten years before she lost it, admits she’s been dealt some bad cards.

“I’m a foster kid,” she said. “I bounced around here as a kid and then spent most of my adolescence on the street. That was the choice I made. But I closed that chapter; I’m an adult now.”

But, while she may have had a troubled past, she believes that shouldn’t prevent her from accessing safe, affordable housing, which she sees as a basic human right.

“We need emergency housing, whether it’s shelter housing, halfway housing or second-stage housing. We need to come together as a community and figure it out, whether we like it or not, because this problem will not go away,” she told the Post.

“Every community should have resources. Everybody needs help sometimes. Everybody deserves food. Everybody deserves a safe place.”

After struggling to help Amanda find a shelter bed, Craine agrees there should be a place in the community where people can be fed and housed.

“Additional emergency housing is necessary. And I’m absolutely for it being in this community. There will be many people who could access it,” she said.

Craine says many people working in the field are aware that homelessness is a growing problem in Georgina.

Last year, the Youth Shelter began offering a limited number of cold alert or overflow beds to older adults up to the age of 29 during the fall and winter. This year, the program is open to all ages.

Indeed, homelessness is exacerbated by the lack of affordable housing and high rents, with some local landlords charging more than $1,700 for a basement bachelor apartment.

According to a York Region case worker, most rents in Georgina are too expensive for low-income people.

For instance, a single person on Ontario Disability (ODSP) receives $1,308 monthly, while an individual on Ontario Works gets a $390 monthly shelter allowance.

During the Sept. 27 council session, Ward 4 Councillor Dale Genge introduced a motion that she believed would address the short-term needs of people experiencing homelessness.

It called on the Town to open warming centres, provide free showers and modify bylaws to allow homeless people to live in RVs parked on private property.

The motion also called for lands on the old Reed Farm not currently being used by ClearWater Farm to be set aside to construct social housing units. And it asked that a Tiny home encampment of up to 20 homes be established on the Link property.

However, the Mayor and council members did not support the motion, principally because they argued that homelessness is the responsibility of the Region and not the Town. So, Genge was forced to withdraw her motion.

Mayor Quirk also stressed that the Town already provides warming centres during cold weather alerts. However, Town facilities, like the Ice Palace and public libraries, lack wrap-around supports and are only open during business hours.

After Genge’s motion was withdrawn, Regional Councillor Naomi Davison put forward her motion, which was unanimously approved.

Davison’s motion, unlike Genge’s, offered no short-term solutions.

Instead, it calls on Town staff to set up a special council meeting, which would include Regional staff, as a follow-up to the Region’s special council meeting on housing and homelessness on November 23.

According to the motion, the meeting will occur no later than the end of Q1 2024. It will review the current level of services and supports available to people experiencing homelessness, investigate establishing emergency shelter beds, and identify potential sites for multi-unit subsidized housing and, possibly, Tiny homes.

While Genge is happy the issue of homelessness has been brought forward, and a motion passed, she would like to see the Town push for more immediate solutions.

“I don’t feel that the approved motion went as far as I would have liked in terms of specifics. Legally, the responsibility lies with the Region, but the Town should push for more.”

“For instance, I hoped we could get approval for a Tiny home community. But it seemed to go too far, too fast for the council.”

“We also need shelter beds in Georgina. People shouldn’t be forced to go south to get a bed.”

Amanda agrees. Unable to find shelter, and with overnight temperatures dropping, she’s becoming more anxious about her situation.

She realizes that a housing crisis can’t be resolved overnight. But she’d like to be able to get out of the cold, access medical services and get a hot meal without going to Newmarket.

“We just need basic necessities,” she said.

“That’s not something we should have to beg for. Nobody should have to beg for it.”