Film shines light on London housing project addressing Ontario’s opioid and homeless crises

A film that shines a spotlight on the opioid and homelessness crises in Ontario demonstrates the need behind a new London housing project.

John Butler’s documentary, SAFE, features tenants who live in buildings run by housing operator Indwell. It shares their stories of homelessness and the hope that comes with supportive, permanent, affordable housing.

Indwell opened its newest location in London on Feb. 28, a 72-unit geared-to-income development called Embassy Commons in Old East Village. Several residents of London and the surrounding region, including support workers, appear in the film.

Butler said the documentary was an eye-opener for him personally, as it highlighted how “tightly wrapped” the opioid crisis and the affordable housing crisis are.

“I didn’t realize how deeply tied the affordable housing crisis and the opioid crisis are. I was under the impression that some people just end up on drugs, and some people make bad choices,” he told CBC.

“But for most of them, the reason that they’re addicted is because of a crisis that happened in their life that was beyond their control, and then it drove them to become unhoused because they couldn’t afford to keep up their habit that they had developed.

“So, then you have someone who’s unhoused, and it’s almost impossible to overcome addiction when you’re unhoused,” Butler added.

A free screening of the documentary will be held at 7 p.m. on Monday at the Hyland Cinema in London.

Butler says he hopes the film will drive home the point that people need to be housed so that they can have support and make changes in their lives. 

“I just hope that people will talk about the issues with housing more …  What I want people to take home from the film is that the affordable housing crisis affects a lot more than your sphere, you know, a lot more than your circle of influence,” he said. “That’s worth paying attention to and talking about.”

Opioids killed more people in Ontario in the second year of the pandemic compared to the first, and there was a dramatic jump in deaths both years compared to pre-pandemic, according to data from Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner.

About eight people per day died from opioids in the second year of the pandemic.

From April 2021 to March 2022, 2,795 opioid-related deaths were recorded, up slightly from 2,727 in the first year of the pandemic, the coroner’s office reports. Those were both large leaps from 2019, when opioids killed 1,559 Ontarians — about four people per day.

In late February, Niagara Region declared a state of emergency in response to the homelessness, mental health and opioid crisis in the area.

The human side of homelessness

Butler says filming for the documentary was done in August 2021 with residents at various Indwell locations across southern Ontario — including Woodstock, London , Simcoe, Hamilton and Mississauga.

Julie Ryan, community engagement coordinator and fundraiser with Indwell, and a tenant in the new Embassy Commons complex, says the film shows how supportive housing can help tackle drug addictions and homelessness together.

Ryan says housing gives people a base from which to heal their lives.

” It’s pretty hard to deal with addictions when you’re living under a tarp. It’s pretty hard to do anything except to survive. So once you can feel safe, you can lock the door, you can be in your own space, you can turn your mind to the other goals that you have in your life. For many tenants that means reuniting with family members, finding volunteer work. working on their addictions,” Ryan told CBC.

Screenings of the documentary will also be held in Kitchener and other locations.

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