• Kyle Fillo

Belleville Housing Advocates: Mayor Mitch Has Failed

Note: If you find the inaction of the City of Belleville and Hastings County abhorrent, join us for a socially distant rally at Belleville City Hall, this Monday, January 10th at 3:30. Placards and instructions will be given to keep people warm and safe. Please mask up and practice social distancing. We demand housing and homeless solutions now! More info here.

According to an unhoused persons count conducted in 2021, Belleville’s homeless population has doubled since 2018. Such sobering statistics - a 100% increase over the course of three years - should be met by City Council and staff with sobriety, action, and bold policy choices. Unfortunately, our elected leaders aren’t interested in providing policy solutions to this escalating crisis in our community, nor even grappling with these sobering statistics. When questioned about homeless services in an InQuinte interview, Mayor Mitch Panciuk responded by throwing conflicting excuses against the wall to see which, if any, would stick.

Mitch wants us to know that the City of Belleville doesn’t actually provide housing or shelter services to its homeless constituents - that’s the responsibility of Hastings County. Also, according to Mitch, Hastings County has housing strategies - housing strategies! - so “there’s no need for anyone to be outside.” Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Mitch stated:

“I tell people that the solution to homelessness is to get people off the street, and we have programs that help to get people off the street. The challenge is, not everybody wishes to access those programs. Then what do you do?”

It’s hard to know what to make of these conflicting statements. It sounds like the City of Belleville has washed its hands of the housing crisis, contracting out all responsibility and accountability to Hastings County. Questions remain, however, life or death questions. If Hastings County does in fact have strategies for providing housing for everyone, why is the homeless count so high? Why would people choose, as Mayor Mitch states, to suffer sub-freezing temperatures, if given a viable alternative? These conflicting reasons deserved questioning, so we arranged interviews with a number of Belleville residents with lived experience of homelessness.

The results were unsurprising. We held interviews with housing-precarious individuals in Belleville and received many first-hand accounts that refute Mitch’s statements. We showed residents the Mayor’s statements taken from the InQuinte interview, and there was collective disbelief that the Mayor appeared to hold the view that housing was available for everyone.

Of the unhoused people we interviewed, none of them had received housing through the County. Many had been on the waitlist for years. Many had been on multiple waiting lists, including high priority waiting lists for victims of domestic violence and trafficking. All of the respondents would have been eligible for placement on the Urgent Housing waitlist, for those with medical needs due to disabilities. A number of interviewees reported that their housing worker never contacted them, they had never met their housing worker, or that they weren’t sure if they were on a waiting list. If they were to call and ask where they were on the waitlist, the County could not provide that information.

It is evident that Hastings County’s “housing strategy” is not in fact meeting the housing needs of everyone in Belleville - a fact which the County’s own report makes extremely clear. The County waitlist received over 1,000 applications in 2021 alone, in addition to the existing applications from previous years. For the Mayor to state that the County’s Housing Strategies are enough to get everyone off the streets is deeply misleading.

Many of the residents we talked to are senior citizens, who have been waiting for subsidized senior living for years. One respondent, Mark, cannot afford rent because he is on a fixed income through disability. He’s been on the housing waitlist for four years. Another respondent, Dwayne, can’t afford housing because the rent is higher than his fixed income, and he’s been on the waitlist for two years. James has been waiting for an opening at a Hastings County senior home for five years. He’s technically on the emergency housing waitlist due to his age, but in the past five years, the County has never reached out to him to fulfill his housing needs.

We also met Amanda, who has been diagnosed with a rare, genetic form of cancer. The diagnosis and subsequent disease caused her to lose her home, pets, and job, leaving her homeless with a life-threatening disease. Another woman, Willow, was escaping multiple domestic abusers and living with debilitating arthritis. She made it clear that no one would choose to sleep on the freezing ground in the middle of winter, while dealing with arthritis and fearing for their safety.

Mitch’s musing about what to do when people have access to shelter or housing services but choose not to access them is irrelevant and an obvious attempt to distract from the glaring issue facing this community: there is a massive lack of affordable housing and accessible shelters driving a housing and homelessness crisis that could easily turn deadly. To insinuate that anyone is choosing to live on the street is not only patently false, but also a cruel insult to a growing portion of the community that faces immense hardships on a daily basis. The inhumanity and suffering faced by this population is a direct result of the Mayor and Council’s abject failure to provide its citizens with access to shelter.

If Mitch were to take the time to listen to the members of his community living on the street in the freezing cold, he could learn a lot about why there is such a large unhoused population in his community. There was not a single person we spoke to who said they would turn down housing if it were available to them. We spoke with a wide variety of people, elderly people, young people, people unable to work due to disability, and people simply unable to find work, but they all had one thing in common: an inability to afford housing or find shelter in Belleville.

After hearing stories of abuse, health issues, and the general hardships of poverty, two things became evidently clear: 1) no one in Belleville is choosing to live on the street, and 2) the Mayor and Council are failing miserably at providing access to affordable housing and shelter in the community they serve. The housing and homeless crises are only accelerating, and Belleville’s harsh winters put the City’s ballooning unhoused population at an undeniable risk of freezing to death. Viewing Mitch’s pathetic refusal of accountability, or even compassion, in response to such a dire situation should bring into question whether or not he has even the human decency to build a better Belleville, let alone the ability.

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