Lanark County eyes former Smiths Falls retirement home for site of transitional housing

The old Willowdale Retirement Home in Smiths Falls was recently purchased by Saumure Group of Companies, and they’re looking to partner with Lanark County’s social services department to offer transitional housing to those in need. – Laurie Weir photo

The former Willowdale Retirement Home in Smiths Falls may soon become transitional housing thanks to a collaboration between the owner of the building, Saumure Group of Companies (SGC), and Lanark County.

In January this year, there were 61 people on the county’s “By Name List,” a list of people experiencing homelessness.

Many of them require a supported independent living environment, but this type of housing is “very limited in the county,” Emily Hollington, director of social services in Lanark County, said during a regular meeting of the county’s community services on Feb. 14.

“In January we saw 44 new-to-us people experiencing homelessness – the highest number we’ve ever had. Typically, we see lower numbers in the winter. Not this year. We’re up closer to 70 [who are] going to be on that list this month.”

Hollington said that the county’s homelessness prevention program (HPP) is projected to be underutilized by about $390,000 this year, which has to be spent by March 31, 2024.

That’s why she was looking for council’s approval to start a new program to meet the current demand.

The vacant Smiths Falls retirement home consists of 63 single-room units, each with a bathroom and about 1,700-square-feet of living space. The rooms can be accessed through a shared hallway and are all located at ground level.

“We’ve been talking to Saumure about this space,” Hollington said. “One of the things we don’t love about it is having shared space. They have offered to remove the windows in the building and put in doors so that each unit would exit directly to the outside, and they would cover the cost of that.”

There is also space for an office and coin laundry facilities on site.

The old Willowdale Retirement Home in Smiths Falls was recently purchased by Saumure Group of Companies, and they’re looking to partner with Lanark County’s social services department to offer transitional housing to those in need. – Laurie Weir photos

Hollington said they would work with Lanark County Mental Health (LCMH) to offer the supported transitional housing program. The county would offer the units to people from their “By Name List” on a temporary basis, but residency would not have a timeline.

LCMH would enter into an agreement with SGC, and the program would consist of 11 clients, residing in individual rooms. The clients would sign a participation agreement with LCMH consisting of various rules, expectations and services. The clients would be program participants, not tenants. The program would operate under the Residential Tenancies Act.

Lanark County would provide funding for LCMH to hire a case manager who works directly in the building, supporting the tenants with activities of daily living, connections to services and supports, and assist with their pathway to independence.

LCMH would also ensure the clients have access to their other services like a nurse practitioner, psychiatrist, harm reduction, etc.

“If the person refuses to participate, they would be asked to leave,” she said.

Programs like this run throughout Ontario, Hollington said, and they’ve been monitoring a similar program in the United Counties of Leeds Grenville called Pixie Place.

SGC would charge Lanark County $1,000 per unit – paid for through the provincial HPP program.

“That’s very cheap when you look at what rent is out in the community,” Hollington said, and a lot cheaper than the hotel rooms they are paying for at $3,000 to $5,000 per month per room.

One of the hiccups is that SGC would like to rent it to the county as a commercial space; they would maintain the exterior and plumbing, while the county would be responsible for the inner unit maintenance.

“That would make our own maintenance staff responsible for unit turnover,” Hollington explained.

LCMH doesn’t operate in this manner, and SGC is “not interested” in doing the day-to-day maintenance, “nor do they have the staff,” she said. “We think we could manage this within our current maintenance portfolio.”

Budget-wise, the program would cost $33,000 – or $3,000 per unit, which includes a bed and mattress; bedding, mini fridge, microwave, air fryer; desk, table and chair, and a bedside table and lamp.

Annual program operating costs would be staffing for 35 hours per week on-site at $120,000; client personal item replacements at $30,000; rent supplement at $132,000; and administration at $14,000; that would total $296,000.

There would be a participation fee that clients would pay to LCMH, Hollington noted, which would equate to about $45,000 annually (or approximately $340 monthly per client).

Coun. Bill King (Lanark Highlands Deputy Reeve), asked why the nearly $300,000 windfall this year, and how would this program be paid going forward.

Hollington said the money was earmarked for supportive housing but nothing had been done in that capacity yet, and that funding would be available again next year through HPP. Another reason for the higher number of people needing housing is due to Shardon Manor in Montague Township not having their expansion of nine beds open yet, as “construction has been a bit delayed,” she said

Ideally, clients will stabilize and the county will be able to find them more permanent housing, Hollington said. That’s what a successful program will look like.

“We are already managing and supporting these people in other locations; we’re just paying more,” she said when asked about a damage clause to the rooms.

“It’s not going to stop hotel use, but I do hope that it’s going to decline. We do have some people sleeping outside and we do have some people right now in our adult supportive housing beds. Those are really shared living (spaces) and they’d be much more successful in an independent unit. That would free up the bed for someone who would function well in shared living.”

This would be a housing option that is not currently available in the county.

“We are hoping to pilot this and we’re hoping to see some success,” Hollington said.

Coun. Peter McKenna (Smiths Falls councillor) supported the recommendation. “It’s a really cost-effective enhancement,” he said, as he asked about tracking successes with the clients who go through this program compared to other programs in the county.

Hollington said she’d be able to update council in her annual reports.

Coun. Jeffrey Carroll asked about zoning. “I don’t want anything to get snagged here,” he said. He said he was concerned with how neighbours would react to the former retirement home becoming transitional housing.

Hollington said she spoke with the owners who said it would be fine.

“They have intentions of doing a few things to support the neighbourhood,” she said, like adding privacy fencing. “Smiths Falls has been really supportive with the project thus far,” she said.

Once staff is in place (a mental health case manager hired by LCMH), Hollington said it should be up and running by summer.

The motion to support the project was unanimously passed by council, which will come back to a future council meeting for final approval.

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