Shannon Moonias and James Carter play with their newly adopted kitten Paws on the couch of their apartment as a cold autumnal wind blasts through the streets.
It’s a scene the couple says they couldn’t have even dreamed of this time last year.
“It’s home. It’s nice, it’s warm, it’s safe. [We] don’t have anybody bothering us,” Moonias, 48, said about their apartment in Thunder Bay, Ont. “It’s nice to actually have a place of your own.”
Just over a year ago, Moonias and Carter, 34, were living in an encampment set up under an abandoned gas bar in a busy parking lot at the edge of Thunder Bay, along with as many as 20 others experiencing various stages of homelessness.
“This is the only place we had coverage when it rained, so it kept us all dry,” Moonias recalled.
This simple act of people trying to find shelter caused outrage in the northwestern Ontario city, with tensions reaching a boiling point last fall.
Amid questions over how to respond to the public outcry and support people experiencing homelessness, with a shortage of transitional and supportive housing, a violent attack shocked the city.
In mid-afternoon on Oct. 5, 2021, a pickup truck drove over a tent where someone was believed to be sleeping, chance alone preventing death.
“We thought he got run over. It scared the hell out of us. It didn’t feel safe [to live outdoors] after that,” said Moonias.
Earlier that day, community agency Elevate NWO swept in, bringing everyone living in the encampment to safety at a local hotel, then later, new “harm reduction” housing units.
Elevate’s executive director, Holly Gauvin, said it’s a solution that helped Moonias and Carter, and some 50 others in the city, move from being homeless to housed in the span of a year, and follows a “housing first” model that leading experts say can help end homelessness in Canada, which is a key issue across the country.
Here are some of the figures:
Experts say there’s a desperate need for Ottawa and the provincial and territorial governments to invest in similar programs, especially as encampments continue to be constructed in city parks and the people living there are subjected to violence.
People are dying while they wait, Gauvin said.
Couple called names, honked and yelled at
There isn’t much activity at the gas bar these days. But when Moonias and Carter return, the place comes alive with memories — some good, others not.
Moonias remembers one big rainstorm, when everyone was huddling under the tarp and in the tent she and Carter shared. One of their friends hadn’t showered in a while, so he took off, running through the parking lot to get clean.
“He says, ‘Oh, I need shampoo now,'” Moonias laughed.
“That’s what we call family,” she said. “Being together and sharing stories, making each other laugh and the stupid shit that happened, just made it even more hilarious for us, even though we were struggling.”
But the way they were treated by people passing by their encampment made them feel less than human.
While Moonias and Carter were living at the abandoned gas bar, they were regularly called names, honked and yelled at, and sometimes even faced physical violence.
“You just protect yourself, help others … it was hard, I don’t think anybody would have survived what we survived,” Moonias said.
The violence from members of the public has become worse over this past summer, Gauvin said.
At one site where people often camped, Gauvin said someone slashed the sides of a tent open with a knife. Another elderly man was living outdoors by himself, and a projectile was thrown so hard that it pierced the tent, leaving a hole in it.
WATCH | Gauvin talks about ‘grieving tree’ to help people cope with deaths on the streets:
She said there were three attacks on different sites in one week where people pretended they were the Thunder Bay police, and started yelling and screaming at the campers, telling them to “get the F out of the tent and die.”
“Our campers will tell you, those random acts of violence really stink, but they heal from them. It’s actually the verbal abuse they’ve had to take, that’s harder to live with … the ‘you’re not welcome, you’re not wanted,'” Gauvin added.
Those comments made life on the streets so much harder, Moonias said.
“I mean, I personally didn’t think I was gonna be on the street myself, and it happened. But you don’t, you’re not told what to do or how it’s gonna go … it can happen to anybody.”
‘There’s actually somebody that cares’
Moonias and Carter said they had talked often about getting off the streets, moving into an apartment, but it was just too costly and difficult.
“The cost of rent is high for sure,” Moonias said. “We put our name in housing, and waited and waited and waited. Sometimes [we stayed] at the hotel for a couple of nights just to clean up, wash our clothes. Then, you know, money runs out, so you’re in the street again.”
That’s part of the reason it was so hard to believe it when Gauvin and staff from Elevate NWO showed up, taking names of people who wanted to go to a hotel.
“We were like, ‘Oh my God, is this real? There’s actually somebody that cares,'” Moonias said.
Elevate NWO received funding from different agencies in the city to get people off the streets and into hotel rooms while they sought more permanent solutions. It meant Moonias, Carter and others stayed in two different hotels in Thunder Bay over two months, before they were then moved into the new harm reduction housing units.
The agency was able to secure four “cluster units,” where there are five individual rooms and bathrooms inside a larger apartment with all the usual amenities, meaning they can house anywhere from 20 to 40 people at a time.
Gauvin said the rooms are what really matters to most of the people they house in the units.
It’s that safety, that security, and it’s that sense of home when they haven’t had a home for a really long time.– Holly Gauvin, Elevate NWO executive director
“For lots of them, it’s the first time they’ve actually had a door and a lock between them and the outside world. So it’s that safety, that security, and it’s that sense of home when they haven’t had a home for a really long time.”
Elevate doesn’t require people to stop using substances, or have a job, or make a deposit to move into the units. They simply need to want to be there, and not bring violence into the house, Gauvin said.
Outreach workers come into the units every day to do wellness checks, and provide harm reduction kits and education about food preparation, cleanliness and home management — skills not everyone may have.
This is an example of “housing first,” said Tim Aubry, a University of Ottawa psychology professor and co-chair of the Canadian Housing First Network.
“It’s getting people who are homeless into housing as quickly as possible with no preconditions … and also supporting them beyond moving into the housing so they get linked to the health and social services they need and ultimately become reintegrated into the community,” he said.
Aubry conducted a major research study on the effectiveness of housing-first programs in Canada, and found it is more effective in ending chronic homelessness than other approaches.
But he said governments seem to be stuck, continuing to invest in the emergency shelter system instead of more forward-looking programs.
“There’s probably somewhere around 80 to 100 housing-first programs across the country, and we clearly need a lot more.”
A statement from Victoria Podbielski, the press secretary for Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark, said the government is increasing annual funding for homelessness prevention and Indigenous supportive housing programs by millions of dollars.
Gauvin said they desperately need to see that money help create more units, and provide funding for programming and support.
Elevate is currently aware of 15 more people living in encampments who want to be moved off the streets and into housing as winter arrives, she said.
“That’s 15 known to us. There very well could be more. It’s getting pretty desperate out there right now,” Gauvin added in a text message.
Housing first a solution to homelessness
This work isn’t easy, Gauvin said.
There are sometimes disputes between the residents. Some have chosen to leave. A few have been asked to leave, although some have made their way back into the units.
Two residents have died in the units from drug overdoses.
“As hard as those [overdose deaths] were, those people died with dignity and love all around them, and they wouldn’t have had it if it weren’t for the housing,” Gauvin said one of Elevate’s nurse practitioners reminded her.
“It’s a lot of work, and there is some risk to do it, but the alternative is waiting for people to die. Seven of our people [involved with Elevate] died earlier this year waiting for housing. That’s an unacceptable loss.”
Back in their home, where they’ve been living since the spring, Moonias and Carter said they’re an example of what can happen when help is offered.
Now, they’re working at Elevate’s warming shelter, welcoming people in from the cold and sharing their story with others who have found themselves in a tough situation.
“There’s quite a bit of people that are using the encampments as homes right now, and I believe they do want a home for themselves,” Moonias said.
“We were homeless. We got taken by people that cared and showed us that there is a solution from being homeless.”
Moonias said people have to want the help, but it’s not that simple.
They also need the opportunity to get off the streets and into a home.