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Starting later this year, people in dire need can find a place to stay with more freedom than conventional shelters – but not all Londoners are sold on the plan

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A person lies on the sidewalk of Dundas Street in downtown London, Ont., which is trying new methods to care for vulnerable people on the streets after years of deepening crisis.Photography by Nicole Osborne/The Globe and Mail

Those who visit London, a pleasant city of 420,000 in the heart of Southwestern Ontario, will see grand old churches, yellow-brick century homes, lovely parks and soaring new apartment towers. They will also see shocking scenes of human suffering.

On downtown streets, drug users lie passed out on the sidewalk or propped against storefronts drawing on crack pipes. On the banks of the Thames River, ragged clusters of tents shelter scores of people with no other home. Half-clothed people in a state of mental confusion are a common sight.

The triple-headed crisis of addiction, homelessness and mental illness that is afflicting so many Canadian cities has come to London with a vengeance. The homeless population has reached 2,000, double the figure before the pandemic. Around 250 people have died on London’s streets over the past four years.

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A lone shopping cart sits on a Dundas Street sidewalk.

London has employed all the usual remedies: shelters, soup kitchens, outreach patrols, safe-consumption and safe-supply programs for those who are addicted to drugs. The crisis has only deepened. So the city has decided to try something different. Later this year, it is expected to open the first in a series of special respite hubs designed to get people off the streets and onto a better path.

Instead of being open to all, the hubs will specialize in housing those with the deepest and most intractable problems.

Instead of being concentrated downtown like most other services for the vulnerable, they will be scattered around London, in comfortable neighbourhoods as well as needy ones.

Instead of putting visitors in dorms and subjecting them to a host of rules, the hubs will give them rooms of their own and, within reason, let them live as they wish, even if that includes using drugs. Pets are allowed. Nurses, counsellors and mental-health workers will be on hand.

Backers say there is nothing quite like it anywhere in Canada. Doubters, and there are many, say the hubs will only spread the problem around, bringing it into family neighbourhoods while doing little to solve the issues that put people on the street in the first place.

Mayor Josh Morgan argues the city had no choice but to take a new tack. “The status quo was not working in the city of London,” he says.

On that, at least, Londoners agree.

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Rain falls a homeless encampment by the Thames River. London estimates there are 2,000 unhoused people in the city, double the pre-pandemic total.

‘Get a job,’ reads some graffiti on a bench near the Thames River encampment. London has grown less affordable since rents doubled over the past six years.
Jennifer Cook, who lives under a tarp in a laneway, has been houseless for 13 years. She says she has seen too much violence in the shelter system, which is at capacity in London.
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Mayor Josh Morgan says the city has little choice but to try something new, because ‘The status quo was not working in the city of London.’

Nestled in rich farm country, London became a thriving industrial and financial centre in the last century. The imposing London Life building downtown is a symbol of its golden era. Today the city is the home of a huge hospital, Victoria, and a major university, Western. A throng of new tech firms have set up offices downtown. Its population is soaring as thousands of immigrants arrive.

But its troubles are piling up. With the potent opioid fentanyl circulating on its streets, overdose deaths are sadly commonplace. An average of nine people a month died of overdoses in the first nine months of last year. The city recently had five drug-related deaths in the space of just eight days.

Rents have doubled over the past six years, pushing tenants out of cheap rooms and apartments. More than 300 people use the city’s shelters daily, filling them to capacity. Another 300 or so live in tent encampments.

A city report in June said that the last year and half has brought more fire risk in encampments, more violence against encampment dwellers, more threats to those who help the homeless and more “hopelessness and desperation among unsheltered residents.”

City services are groaning under the strain. Homeless Londoners accounted for 6,000 emergency room visits last year, staff told city council in September, and people in mental distress consumed 11,000 hours of police time. Homeowners say that their cars are routinely broken into and their garages burglarized.

Businesses complain about fights, stabbings and open drug use downtown. One merchant on Dundas Street, a gathering point for people who live rough, says that a man waving a hatchet and demanding drugs recently accosted one of customers outside his record store. A women’s clothing outlet, Frankly Scarlett, said this month that it was closing its store in the Richmond Row district because of “the daily challenges of homelessness, vandalism and drug addiction plaguing our downtown.”

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A man rests at Dundas and Clarence, at a bank around the corner from a shopping complex.

Late last year, after front-line workers staged a hunger strike to protest the plight of the homeless, the city roused itself to act. A series of summits brought together community groups, developers, retailers, police and health executives. They settled on what is called a Whole of Community System Response, a “critical and transformative plan” designed to ease the impact of London’s “dire health and homelessness crisis” on the whole community. A local couple kicked in $25-million to fund the effort.

“The beauty of what’s happened in London,” says Greg Nash, a director at the London InterCommunity Health Centre, “is that the entire community has come together and said, ‘This is no longer acceptable. This needs to change.’”

Mr. Morgan says that many Londoners who signed on to the plan would have been at odds with each other a few years ago. “And now they’re sitting at the same table, talking about how they work together to ease the suffering on our streets. That is something that I’ve never seen before in my time as an elected official.”

The hubs are the centrepiece of the plan. Each will have 25 to 35 residents who will get food, laundry, showers and help with everything from finding housing to dealing with the justice system. The focus is on “high-acuity” individuals: those with complex needs, like a combination of mental illness and addiction, that often bring them into contact with police and the health-care system. Many never use traditional shelters.

The aim is to get them indoors, out of danger and into a more settled future, often in some form of supportive housing where they will continue to receive various kinds of help. The cost will be high, about $100,000 a year for each bed. That is 10 times the cost of a shelter bed but far less than the cost of a stay in the ER, where many high-acuity people end up. One troubled local man visited an ER 244 times in six months.

The first hub, scheduled to open in December, will cater to Indigenous people. Two others will follow next year, one for youth and another for women. Eventually there could be as many as 15.

At City Hall on Oct. 5, politicians and the public gathered for a council meeting on homelessness in London. Councillor Susan Stevenson is one of the critics of the hub system, which she says residents have a right to be worried about.

Despite all the high-level support for the project, many Londoners are not on board. When city council met to approve the location of the first three hubs, it ran into opposition over one particular site: on Fanshawe Park Road in a comfortable part of town a few minutes from the university. Of 136 residents who wrote in, 133 were either against or concerned.

The leading skeptic on city council, Susan Stevenson, says residents have a right to worry that the hubs will bring danger to their neighbourhoods. The city, she says, should worry as much about them as it does about the people living on its streets. “If they don’t feel that they can leave a chair on their front porch or feel secure going to bed at night, that really wears on somebody’s mental health.”

She also worries that even if the hubs help residents get more stable, there won’t be enough treatment programs to help them recover from their illnesses and addictions afterward.

Backers reply that a dead person will never go to treatment. The city’s priority should be getting the people most at risk off the streets and out of danger. Then it can work on next steps.

Beside a campfire at one group of tents near the Thames, Stephanie Wheaton said she liked the hubs idea. The 35-year-old, who has been unhoused on and off for 10 years and was once to be addicted to cocaine, she said she thinks that London’s homeless need help getting back on track.

Others living on the street said they would rather stay outdoors than move into any kind of shelter, even one with lots of supports. Huddling under a tarp in a laneway on a rainy night, Jennifer Cook, 41, said that she had seen too much violence and stealing at shelters during her 13 years without a home.

“The system is broken,” she said. To her, the hubs plan sounded like more “blah, blah, blah” from a city that just doesn’t care.

Housing, homelessness and health: More from The Globe and Mail

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