OPSEU president challenges Ford to tour homeless shelters

London Homeless Coalition Chair Abe Oudshoorn, OPSEU President Warren "Smokey" Thomas and local OPSEU representative Tischa Forster in London, March 6, 2019. (Photo by Miranda Chant, Blackburn News)

The head of Ontario’s largest public sector union is calling on Ontario Premier Doug Ford to tour area homeless shelters to get a first hand look at the growing need for increased provincial funding.

Warren “Smokey” Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, extended the challenge while in London Wednesday to discuss the homelessness crisis and need for more mental health supports.

“This is a guy who grew up in a millionaire family and professes to be ‘for the people,’ which is just a slogan. If I could ever get a meeting with [Ford] I would like him to go into some places,” said Thomas. “I challenged the Liberals to tour some homeless shelters and go to places like jails. I found that when you could get someone to actually go through and do a tour they would fix some things.”

The need for additional dollars from the Ontario government was thrust back into the spotlight in recent weeks as Mission Services of London announced cuts due to a lack of funding. As of April 1, the crash bed program at the agency’s York Street shelter will close. The length of time people can stay at Quintin Warner House, Mission Services’ residential addiction treatment facility, is also being reduced because of insufficient funding.

“Ford needs to have a strategy to reduce poverty,” said Thomas. “If he put $300 million in right off the start into the Ontario Disability Support Program and Ontario Works and then had another $100 million for community agencies, like homeless shelters, to apply for, it would help. This shouldn’t be just a municipal responsibility.”

According to figures from the London Homeless Coalition, there are more than 4,500 families in the city waiting for affordable housing units, the highest number to date.

“We are also seeing our shelter numbers in the last year go up with some of the longest stays in shelter we have ever seen before and that is simply because people don’t have an affordable, safe, supported option to go to,” said Coalition Chair Abe Oudshoorn, who met with Thomas during his visit to London. “We are rallying our community to work as hard as we can to fill the gaps when they arise. We just wish the gaps weren’t created by the provincial government not providing enough funding.”

OPSEU gave the London Homeless Coalition $1,500 during Wednesday’s meeting to help the organization continue its work. Thomas also promised to work with the coalition to hold a so-called lobby day at Queen’s Park in Toronto. The focus of the day would be to lobby the government to include more dollars for frontline services to address homelessness, the need for affordable housing, and mental health supports.

“It would be a chance for us to share with them the stories of the people we are trying to support, the change that we are trying to make in our community, how hard we are working here in London, and how they can really help us out with just a little bit more investment and funding into the right services that we know how to provide,” said Oudshoorn.