Community agencies, led by Woodstock and Area Community Health Centre, are coming together to find out what's needed to prevent and solve homelessness in Oxford County

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

Homelessness is so much broader than what is seen at a shelter – and Oxford County is ready to tackle it.

A new project, the Oxford County Street Outreach Program, began in the spring to help paint a picture of Oxford County’s homelessness and housing needs.

“I went out and started interviewing service and agency representatives across the county, so I was visiting Woodstock, Ingersoll, Tillsonburg and all the hamlets and towns in between,” said David Grand, the project manager through the Woodstock and Area Community Health Centre.

Grand’s research is still ongoing – he’s conducting what’s called a “community needs assessment,” funded by the United Way – but so far there are some patterns emerging.

Homelessness is rarely found on its own. It’s tied into a large and complex web of poverty and social service needs.

Youth are a key population. Many are at risk of becoming homeless.

And that doesn’t always mean what we think it means.

“(Homelessness) is something that maybe the average person wouldn’t have knowledge of or take notice of. It usually entails couch surfing, precarious housing,” Grand said.

“It’s not just the individual living on the street, completely destitute, it’s individuals who are at risk of homelessness,” he added.

And that broader group of people – those at risk for homelessness – encompasses a lot of local residents.

“That could be our neighbour, a friend or family member who’s one crisis away from not being able to pay their mortgage or pay their rent. That can really bring it home for people, because there are a lot of people in that situation,” Grand said.

“Homelessness in a rural context is a typically hidden problem.”

So the Oxford County Street Outreach Program is aiming to bring it into the light.

For now the focus remains on gathering the information and later, in the new year, on putting together a report that summarizes that data.

The next step is action.

“Agency partners that are sitting around the table will have to come to some sort of conclusion around short-term and long-term strategies for intervention and some realistic expectations around what we can do,” Grand explained.

The entire project is based around a "Housing First" strategy, which is based on the idea that housing is a human right. Through that philosophy, housing is a priority, but in conjunction with finding the necessary social services for those under the roof.

And it’s not just about business and non-profit leaders sitting in a board room. Working towards prevention and solutions to homelessness will require help from ordinary residents, too, Grand said.

“This is not an isolated issue, this is something that affects all of us. Poverty affects all of us, whether or not you’re privileged,” he said.

Homelessness itself impacts everyone in the local community, not just those who are couch surfing or trying to find stable housing.

“(Take) the hospital or the police, when they’re wrapped up by serving people in crisis who could be better served by preventative services, then the average person is affected by that wait as well when they go to access services,” Grand explained.

He called on local residents to challenge their own definitions of homelessness as the region works towards a coordinated strategy.

“In order to heal these types of wounds in our society, we need to work together to understand how we can end this. It’s going to take all of us together to close the gaps.”