Addressing Homelessness in Thunder Bay

Homeless Encampment in Thunder Bay
McVicar's Creek Homeless

THUNDER BAY – NEWS – Thunder Bay is grappling with a rising homeless population, with visible encampments in Fort William and Port Arthur. There are also small encampments across the city.

As local individuals and organizations strive to address this issue, it’s clear that innovative and effective solutions are needed. By examining the strategies of cities that have successfully combated homelessness, Thunder Bay can find inspiration and practical approaches to alleviate this social crisis.

The Housing First Approach: A Foundation for Success

The ‘Housing First’ model, where housing is provided as a primary response to homelessness, has proven successful in various cities. Unlike traditional methods that require individuals to meet certain prerequisites before obtaining housing, ‘Housing First’ operates on the principle that secure housing is a fundamental step in solving homelessness.

The “Housing First” approach is a homelessness assistance strategy that prioritizes providing people experiencing homelessness with immediate, permanent housing, without preconditions like sobriety or employment.

Once housed, individuals are offered a range of supportive services to address other needs they may have, such as mental health or substance abuse treatment. This approach is based on the idea that people are better able to move forward with their lives if they are first housed securely. It has been widely adopted and is supported by evidence suggesting that it is an effective and efficient solution to homelessness.

Part of the encampment on Donald Street East
Part of the encampment on Donald Street East

What is happening in Thunder Bay?

The Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board (TBDSSAB) is actively working to combat homelessness through its Community Homelessness Support Program. This program’s primary goal is to support the province’s objective of ending chronic homelessness by 2025 and to foster creative solutions in line with the Board’s housing and homelessness plan​1​.

To be eligible for funding, organizations must meet specific criteria, such as using the funds to directly reduce or prevent homelessness in the district, being a non-profit or charity operating locally, and having measurable goals​1​. Eligible expenses under this program include services, supplies, accommodations, transportation, and salaries related to assisting the homeless or those at risk, although there are some restrictions​1​.

Applications are evaluated based on criteria like community need, the impact of the proposal, partnerships, and past compliance with TBDSSAB terms​1​. All allocated funds must be spent by March 31, 2024, and recipients are required to report on how the funds were used​2​. This structured approach aims to provide targeted, effective support where it’s most needed, using a combination of financial aid and accountability measures to ensure results.

How Many Homeless People in Thunder Bay?

The latest point-in-time count conducted by the Thunder Bay District Social Services Administration Board (TBDSSAB) and Lakehead Social Planning Council (LSPC) indicates that the number of people experiencing homelessness in Thunder Bay has not necessarily declined but the method of counting has become more refined.

The 2021 count found 221 valid surveys, a decrease from previous counts (474 in 2018 and 289 in 2016), which does not necessarily signify a decrease in homelessness. This count was affected by lower participation due to the pandemic and a heightened stigma against the homeless at the time.

A more accurate indicator is the by-name list, which had registered 693 people, providing a clearer picture of the issue. While the count offers insights into the demographic and reasons for homelessness, it also highlights the need for ongoing and increased support and investment in homelessness initiatives.

Homelessness was an Election Issue? How is Council doing?

In 2023, the update provided to the Thunder Bay City Council indicated that the city’s homelessness strategy had connected only 13 people with housing, a significant decrease from over 50 individuals who were housed in the previous year, 2022.

This decline has been attributed to increased numbers of people in encampments and low housing availability. The current year’s efforts are challenged by the housing system’s capacity issues, with nearly 100 individuals placed on community housing waitlists​.

The Thunder Bay City Council however state they have been proactive in addressing homelessness through a human-rights based approach to homeless encampments. They have avoided evictions from public lands except in extreme cases, focusing on providing support in partnership with local agencies.

In 2022, this strategy was successful, housing over 50 individuals. However, the challenge has grown due to a dramatic increase in encampment populations and a shortage of available housing.

Nearly 100 individuals were placed on community housing waitlists in a recent year, with city staff citing a three-fold increase in encampment residents and consistently full emergency shelters.

Council is considering emergency measures, including opening city buildings for shelter or seeking military assistance to provide tents and medical support, as the situation has become more pressing with the approach of colder weather.

Are There Paths to Follow to Success?

Success in Houston: Coordinated Efforts and Rapid Housing

Houston’s approach involved overhauling their system to quickly house individuals, reducing homelessness by over half. They achieved this by combining resources and avoiding service duplication, ensuring more efficient use of funds and efforts​1​.

The European Paradigm: Vienna and Helsinki’s Unconditional Housing

Vienna offers affordable housing in convenient locations, ensuring accessibility for all citizens, which has significantly supported the city’s impoverished populations​2​. Meanwhile, Helsinki’s unconditional housing policy, part of the broader ‘Housing First’ principle, provides permanent housing without prerequisites, even for those with substance abuse issues, resulting in a notable decline in homelessness​2​.

The American Experience: Columbus and Salt Lake City’s Housing Initiatives

Columbus, Ohio, boasts a 70% success rate in housing the homeless, while Salt Lake City, Utah, saw a 91% reduction in homelessness from 2005 to 2015, thanks to implementing the ‘Housing First’ approach​3​​2​.

Recommendations for Thunder Bay

Based on these success stories, Thunder Bay could consider the following actions:

  • Adopt a ‘Housing First’ Model: Prioritize the provision of permanent housing without preconditions.
  • Coordinate Services and Resources: Streamline efforts across organizations to avoid duplication and efficiently use resources.
  • Ensure Accessibility: Develop affordable housing projects in locations that allow for easy access to transportation and services.
  • Unconditional Support: Offer support services after housing is secured, assisting with additional issues such as employment and healthcare.
  • Engage in System Overhaul: Evaluate and revamp current systems to close service gaps and enhance collaboration among agencies.
  • Utilize Federal Funds Effectively: Allocate government funds to create permanent housing solutions rather than temporary shelters.


The challenge of homelessness in Thunder Bay requires a multifaceted response, drawing on the proven strategies of cities that have effectively addressed similar issues.

By implementing a ‘Housing First’ approach, coordinating efforts, and ensuring unconditional support, Thunder Bay can make significant strides toward solving homelessness, transforming the lives of its most vulnerable citizens.

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