One of Ontario’s top homelessness and addictions advocates, Tom Regehr, says he has a long way to go to inspire real change in Haliburton County.

Through his new working group Voice Haliburton, launched in February, Regehr has been running weekly sessions designed to bring people of all backgrounds together in a supportive, non-judgemental setting to share their personal stories of struggle. The idea, he tells The Highlander, is to foster a collective atmosphere where people help and encourage each other to make change in their lives.

“Things aren’t quite working. We’re not getting the traction I thought I would. When I was first brought in, I was utterly confident I would have a successful group up and running by the summer or early fall. I’ve failed,” Regehr said, noting his sessions have attracted 10 people in four months.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. In his preliminary work in the Highlands, Regehr has learned drug use is rampant, particularly Class A substances like fentanyl and other opioids. The homelessness population is growing too, he said.

“I don’t have a way of giving you a number in terms of how many [people there are struggling], but I can say by percentage of population, it’s probably more [of a problem] here than anywhere I’ve worked,” Regehr said. “People out there are feeling lonely, they’re suffering. The most heartbreaking thing is they have no clue what help is available to them… There’s no trust.”

The biggest contributor to that, in his mind, is the lack of a designated community space people can go to during the day. In the six years he lived on the streets in Brampton in the 1990s, Regehr said he regularly frequented a Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) pop-up where people could go to grab a coffee, play pool and socialize.

While organizations like SIRCH have an open-door policy at the Bistro, Regehr said it’s important for the disenfranchised to have a space they can call their own.

“It needs to be comfortable. It needs to be somewhere they won’t feel threatened, where they can connect with, or even just see people who are also suffering. Who also don’t fit in,” Regehr said.

He said most successful operations he’s seen in other communities are faith-based.

Making a difference

Regehr wishes he’d made greater traction on the County’s homelessness and addiction issues, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t proud of the work he has done.

“Most people bounce towards big change, and that’s what I’ve seen at the sessions here… the people that have come out and been exposed to this, the mutual respect and growth I’ve seen happen in that room is unique. The people that have come out have been informed, engaged – I’m in awe of the natural, supportive, accepting, respectful atmosphere, and that’s been present since our second ever meeting. It usually takes months to build something like that.”

Of the 10 attendees, Regehr said they all presented with some form of addiction. None admitted to being homeless.

“Knowing you can talk, and you’re safe to do so opens so many doors. The one common denominator that helps people come to a point of change, and this is the key point I’m trying to communicate, is being actively valued and exposing yourself to live human interaction,” Regehr noted.

He’s anticipating a busy summer. Voice sessions will continue to run every other week, now taking place at SIRCH in Haliburton. Meetings run from 7 to 9 p.m, with one tonight (June 15) and the next June 29.

On June 27, Regehr will be at Abbey Gardens for a public event where he’ll share some of Voice’s initial successes and future plans. He’s planning two more events in July.

“Working here in Haliburton has reminded me how soul-fulfilling it can be to see people experiencing joy and laughter for the first time in a decade, or even in their adult life. My goal is to expand that, reach more people and help them get to their point of change,” he said.

For more information, visit voicehaliburton.