“The current shelter system does not have the proper supports. Our homeless hubs will”: A Q&A with London mayor Josh Morgan

“The current shelter system does not have the proper supports. Our homeless hubs will”: A Q&A with London mayor Josh Morgan

Here, Morgan explains how the new residential complexes for unhoused people will actually save tax dollars, what potential locations make the best fit and why Londoners, with time, will come to embrace the project

In the last four years, over 200 people have died on the streets of London, Ontario—a city in the midst of its own housing crisis. Rates of homelessness in London have more than doubled since the outset of the pandemic, and parts of the core now evoke the abject human suffering seen in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and LA’s Skid Row.

When it became clear to London city council that the usual remedies (shelters, street patrols) weren’t going to make a dent in the problem, they opted instead for a radical new approach. This December, the city will open its first two homeless hubs: mid-sized residential complexes where unhoused people can seek respite. Soon, there may be as many as 15 such hubs spread across London, each housing between 25 and 35 individuals. These are not shelters or dorms. Residents will live on a semi-permanent basis in rooms that belong to them and them alone. Staff at the hubs will help them recover from addiction or mental illness. And while residents convalesce, support workers will seek to find them permanent homes elsewhere in the city. 

The project is as bold as it is controversial. At the hubs, pets will be permitted; drug use, too. When council approved the plan in October, citizens protested outside city hall and wrote in hundreds of angry letters, accusing the city of wasting public money and ignoring safety concerns. Here, Josh Morgan, the mayor of London, says he’s optimistic that, in time, even the naysayers will come to believe in the project.

Related: “Our previous zoning laws excluded people based on race and income. Multiplexes will help fix that”—A Q&A with chief planner Gregg Lintern

If I visited one of your new hubs this December, what could I expect to see?
Hubs have respite beds, where people may stay for just a few hours, and transitional beds, where people actually get their own space for a longer period of time. They will have a place to store their belongings, they will have privacy, and they will have a roof over their heads. The hubs provide not just basic needs—like showers, food and laundry—but also quick access to acute and primary health care, housing support services, income support services and translation services. None of that is available in a traditional shelter. There’s a very strong resident-to-staff ratio at the hubs: about six to one. At a shelter, the ratio could be 33 to one.

Who are the hubs meant to serve?
We have a general homelessness problem in London—people are struggling with the cost of living. In cold weather, individuals who are temporarily unhoused can often find a place to stay, via couch surfing or a family member or a friend who will take them in. But we also have about 600 high-acuity individuals who live unsheltered most of the time and require 24/7 supports for a variety of reasons, including addiction and mental health. The hubs are for them.

Make the case for focusing on people who are chronically homeless as opposed to temporarily homeless.
Chronically homeless people are often not accepted in the traditional shelter system because it’s not prepared to offer the support they need. It’s a population that consumes a high number of resources, whether those are ER resources, hospital resources, land-ambulance transfers or contacts with police. Also, it’s a population in desperate need.

But homeless hubs are resource-intensive too. I read that your initiative will cost roughly $100,000 per person, per year. Are you really suggesting that housing people in hubs will save the city money?
At any given time, about 90 people in the city occupy hospital beds because they cannot be discharged into stable spaces. In other words, they are taking up hospital space because there is no other place for them to go. One homeless individual was in the emergency room 221 times last year. This is the most expensive place for anybody to be. It costs $1,400 a day in London.

I’m curious about the decision to keep the hubs relatively small. We’re looking at about 25 to 35 beds per hub. But if you make the hubs bigger, couldn’t you benefit from economies of scale?
The hubs are focused on high-needs populations. There is a specific hub opening in December that is for and led by the Indigenous community. We will also have priority hubs for women, families and people with complex medical conditions. We don’t need large spaces for those specific populations.

Drug use will be tolerated at the hubs. That’s gotten a lot of London residents fired up. Do you still endorse this idea?
Let me be clear: there’s not going to be open drug use in common or public spaces, and we are not supplying drugs. The hubs are not safe-injection sites. But people’s personal spaces are their personal spaces. Do people use drugs in their own homes across Canada? Yes, they do. How is this situation any different from that?

Residents are worried that hubs will undermine community safety. Is it possible to pick a location that quells those concerns? 
We developed a set of criteria in consultation with the public. There was a desire to have hubs near major arterial roads with good access to transit. There was also a desire to ensure that hubs are not too close to parks, elementary schools, childcare centres, wading pools or splash pads.

What does “not too close” mean?
It’s a judgment call based on the environmental conditions of the area. There isn’t a specific number of metres. You could be close to something, but if there’s fencing and other barriers, then maybe you’re not as close as you might think you are.

But in a city, everything is close to everything else. London recently walked away from a plan to have a hub in the Lighthouse Inn. As soon as that location was announced, you had residents outraged that it was close to a treatment space for children with autism, for instance. Can you convince these opponents otherwise?
What people are feeling is always legitimate. But those feelings can be based on a misunderstanding. When you’re doing something new, you need to engage in clear dialogue. We must be transparent about what these facilities are—and are not—going to look like. There was a Facebook group of concerned citizens that said, “Come to city hall, so we can speak up and oppose the Lighthouse Inn hub location.” Its cover image was of an encampmentnot a very nice-looking one. That kind of messaging leads people to make assumptions that simply aren’t true.

When people picture a shelter, they don’t necessarily picture an encampment. But they do picture a building with lots of people milling around outside. They picture public intoxication and drug use. Are these expectations misguided?
That’s not how we designed the hub system. The lead agencies, that is, the local non-profits that will run each hub, will be responsible for the security of the sites and for the safety of the participants. They will manage the outdoor space and make decisions about the types of people who can and can’t come inside.

You’re saying that those who oppose the hubs don’t really understand what they are. But you can’t blame people for picturing a typical homeless shelter.
The conversation will get easier as we proceed with implementation, because people will have something to look at. Years back, when methadone clinics were first opening, people would say, “I don’t want that in my neighbourhood.” Now they’re used to them. Most people don’t even know where the methadone clinics are in the city. The fact that we have two hubs opening in December means we will soon have tangible examples.

The hub at the Lighthouse Inn was slated to open in the spring, and then it was cancelled November 6. What happened?
The Canadian Mental Health Association, which was commissioned to operate the site, found out that there are currently long-term residents at the inn who see it more as a home than as a motel. So, had the plan gone through, these people would have been forced to leave. The goal here is to help marginalized populations, not to evict people who are already living in a housing environment.

But was the cancellation also a capitulation to public pressure?
No, no, no, no.

Because from the outside, that’s kind of how it looks. There was a public outcry focused around that site. A lot of people didn’t want the hub to be there.
If we were going to capitulate, it would have made sense to do it before all the public participation meetings, before people got angry at us for our decision. We made the decision to go forward in the face of public pressure because—at the time—it seemed like the right thing to do. If you’re going to cave to public pressure on something, usually you do it before you make the decision, not after.

Still, it’s a bummer that the initiative isn’t moving forward.
It’s unfortunate, but I’m an optimist. I always look at the bright side of things. When you’re doing something new, you take six steps forward and one step back. Then you take another six steps forward.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.