GUELPH -- Fresh air and a beautiful view are part of a goal to end chronic homelessness in Guelph and Wellington by 2023.

A pilot project with Ignatius Jesuit Centre, a non-verbal healing retreat in north Guelph, is taking a new approach to homelessness. The retreat has been closed since the pandemic began.

"Our retreaters come from all around the world and we couldn't possibly imagine accommodating them during a pandemic," director of operations Lisa Calzonetti said.

The county saw an opportunity that lined up their their housing-first philosophy.

"That's where you prioritize getting people housed so that they can work on their needs and addressing their needs," Wellington County director of housing Mark Poste said. "We know it's hard for people to prioritize anything if they don't have a place to call home."

The pilot project will allow up to 50 people to live at the centre with their own room, giving them a place to stay for 24 hours a day for up to 40 days. Traditional emergency shelters provide lodgings for overnight stays only.

"It would be an all-encompassing experience," Calzonetti said. "They would live here, eat, work."

The property offers a kitchen, counselling and addictions treatment. Staff are also available to help transition to permanent housing.

It will cost the county about $1.1 million for the year.

The housing-first approach was successful during the early stages of the pandemic. The three emergency shelters in the region were shut down because people weren't able to physically distance. People were instead given a hotel room while still accessing transitional services.

"We saw really great results from that and started looking what other options we could look at, first off to become more resilient," Poste said.

During that time, 31 people secured permanent housing and county officials said there was an overall improvement in health and a decline in emergency service use.

The centre will return to normal at the end of the pilot project.

A report detailing the Social Service Committee’s findings during the altered pandemic response to homelessness can be found on page 62 of their October committee agenda.