Putting a face to homelessness

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Will Faulkner doesn’t appear noticeably different from your average 18-year-old. Shaggy brown hair, an oversized orange sweater and a fitted hat – first impressions tell nothing of Faulkner’s tumultuous past and ongoing struggle with homelessness.

“On Christmas Eve, four years ago, my mother looked at me and said ‘I want ten bucks for crack, or get out,’” he began. “And you know, I didn’t have it, so I got kicked out.”

He has spent time living on the streets and in various shelters in Kitchener and Toronto but is currently living in Hamilton, where he has managed to acquire a basement apartment. However, stranded in Kitchener with no money for bus fare, Faulkner was unsure if he would be able to get back in time to pay his rent.

“I’m a bit of a product of my environment but, you know, if I would have actually pulled up my socks … as soon as I hit the streets, you know, I would’ve been in a proper spot,” Faulkner acknowledged, sounding far beyond his years. “I would’ve actually had a life.”

“This is not a good life. It’s hard.”

Faulkner has a history of drug use but has overcome addiction to drugs including methamphetamine and cocaine.

“Stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life was drop out of school,” said Faulkner, outlining his greatest regret. “I’ve closed so many doors. It’s so hard to find a job with no schooling.”

He stopped attending school at age 16.

He continued, “A lot of people think ‘I’m just going to drop out of school and get a job, I’m going to get a place.’ I had that mentality and look where I am, in a shelter.”

In spite of regret for the past, he has goals for the future. Faulkner outlined, “Basically I’m going to use Ontario Works to pay my rent until I can find a job and once I find a job, I’m going to tell Ontario Works to take a hike.”

While living on welfare for extended periods of time is possible, he said, it’s not a means to a comfortable or easy life. However, finding a job has proved difficult and Faulkner has yet to after a year and a half of searching.

Faulkner remains optimistic for the future in spite of the large obstacles he must overcome.

“Not just hope, I know things are going to work out,” he said.
Faulkner’s experiences with struggling to find employment and consistent shelter are not isolated incidences. His situation, while unique, contains elements which are reflected in the circumstances faced by countless others representing various demographics across Waterloo Region. Stigmas against age and stereotypes which influence perceptions of struggling youth provide them with additional barriers, but the overall problems of unemployment and inability to find housing are characterized by a lack of support which extends across all ages and types of people.

Particularly for those living in Waterloo, the extent of the problem of homelessness is not necessarily recognized, as it is not a highly visible issue. And yet, in 2010, according to the Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG) of Waterloo Region, 2,859 accessed emergency shelter services within Waterloo Region, for a total of 67,943 bed nights, meaning that some were without their own place to sleep for numerous nights within one year.

These numbers do not account for people who have spent nights on the street or taken refuge with friends or family after losing their own accommodations.

Why does this remain such a significant problem in a region which appears to have a great deal of prosperity? The Cord set out to evaluate what efforts are being made and where more work is still needed in order to alleviate homelessness within Waterloo Region.

Is affordable housing available?

Creation of and access to affordable housing is an uphill battle within the region.

HHUG releases an annual report card detailing struggles and successes with housing stability in Waterloo Region. The analysis for 2010 indicated that while the number of households on the Community Housing Waiting List did see a decrease, there is still high demand for affordable housing, particularly one bedroom apartments. Additionally, the vacancy rate decreased below the acceptable three per cent rate, meaning that less units were becoming available. Notably, efforts to improve these scenarios were made more difficult by rising inflation and population growth.

Laurie, a 50-year-old woman who is currently living in transitional housing provided by the Working Centre in Kitchener, has been searching for a place of her own since November. She gave up an apartment in hopes of finding one which had a better location and cheaper rent. Unfortunately, there is a limit to how long she can remain in transitional housing, putting her in a very risky situation.

“I’m on the hunt for a better place to live that I can afford. And it is not easy,” Laurie explained. “Especially a quality place of your own. It’s more sharing with people you don’t know. It’s about all there is out there.”

She continued, “All I see going up are expensive condos, people getting squeezed out.”

“It’s like if you’re down at the bottom, ‘so what?’”

Amber Fitzgerald is the housing services co-ordinator for Lutherwood, a local not for profit which provides a variety of supports, from health to housing. Wait lists, she said, can be up to six or seven years for many people looking for one bedroom accommodations.

“There’s a lot of singles [receiving Ontario Works] that we see in the work that I do, and all they can afford is shared accommodation based on the income that they get,” Fitzgerald noted. “Having more community housing that’s built for one bedroom housing gives them the option.”

Options are highly restricted for those who are at risk of or struggling with homelessness. In 2010, a single person on Ontario Works was provided a monthly shelter allowance of $368, which falls far short of the average market rent of $589 for a bachelor apartment. Additionally, quality choices are further limited, as lower income housing often is less well maintained and in inferior locations than more expensive accommodations.

Jo-ann Vasselin, the HHUG initiatives coordinator for Lutherwood, maintained, “If they don’t feel comfortable and safe in it, they don’t have to take it. And we feel that’s their right as a human being.” Safety is one of seven qualifications outlined by the region that an individual has the right to when determining the adequacy of housing. It includes accessibility, affordability and proper maintenance, among other components.

While the general consensus seems to indicate satisfaction in how the region is dealing with issues of homelessness, the problem still exists, and supports are almost certainly constrained by limited funding.

Geoff Nelson, a psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who has done extensive research on homelessness, attributes much of the shortage in housing to a lack of support from upper levels of government. While it was once a federal responsibility, Nelson said the government has “started to download it to the municipalities. So there’s a period of time in which there was very little low income housing, or supportive housing that was created.”

While he commended the region for its efforts, Nelson asserted, “The problem it faces is that it needs the financial assistance of higher levels of government, like outside of the region. It needs the federal government and the provincial government to create better opportunities for housing. That’s what they’re waiting for.”

Complicating factors

While perceptions that the homeless community consists only of individuals with extreme mental illness can be countered as myth, mental health issues are a very real concern for many experiencing homelessness. Without proper support, some in the population are vulnerable and can experience additional problems with accessing or maintaining housing.

“All of these issues that are barriers for the homeless population in general are then compounded by those that have a mental health issue,” said ROOF (Reaching Our Outdoor Friends) executive director Sandy Dietrich-Bell, whose work specifically addresses problems faced by youth.

Her experience has lead her to believe that a great deal of mental illness in youth is undiagnosed, which makes it difficult to provide them with adequate assistance.

“The youth themselves often don’t understand their own mental health issue,” Dietrich-Bell suggested. “There’s a real stigma, especially for youth, around a mental health diagnosis, so some avoid it or deny it.”

Amanda Thomas has accessed the services of ROOF in the past and continues to spend time at the organization, although she currently has stable accommodations. Thomas, 25,¬ suffers from ADD, ADHD and ODD [Oppositional Defiant Disorder]. This has contributed to her struggles with sporadic homelessness, which began when she was 19, due to difficulties in maintaining relationships with landlords and family members.

“We need to talk about it more. We need to get it out in the open,” remarked Thomas on ways in which greater assistance can be provided to people with mental health issues. “It’s something that’s rarely talked about and people are just really starting to understand it more.”

One model which is currently being implemented in five major Canadian cities with the support of federal funding and under the direction of the Mental Health Commission of Canada is the Housing First initiative. Advocates for this approach believe that mental illness can only be dealt with in an effective manner once an individual has a reliable housing situation

“It’s a recovery philosophy that’s used as well, so it believes that people with the proper support can improve, get well, do better in their lives,” said Nelson, explaining how those who are housed are also provided with resources to help them appropriately address mental illness.

Ron Flaming, the program director of residential services at local organization House of Friendship reiterated, “I think the solutions are around providing housing that includes supports. Bricks and mortar are not enough.”

Dietrich-Bell believes that a “housing too” model, meaning accommodations with additional assistance, is particularly critical for younger demographics.
“Unlike an adult, if you find an apartment for a youth and you stick them in there and give them nothing else, you’re setting them up to fail,” she argued. “They don’t have the cognitive maturity, they don’t have the skills, to necessarily maintain that apartment even in terms of cleanliness and self-care, but even other issues around landlord negotiations and that sort of thing.”

Getting everyone on the same page

Waterloo Region does have a number of initiatives in place to help deal with homelessness, from multiple shelters to food programs to employment and housing services to assist those in need.

In 2007, the region released a document titled “All Roads Lead to Home: A Homelessness to Housing Stability Strategy for Waterloo Region” which aimed to both educate and improve efforts to combat homelessness. The report included eight action areas with multiple goals outlined within each that have been tracked through yearly progress reports. The majority of aims were realized by the time the 2010 final report was released.

However, while regional government may demonstrate apt appreciation for the depth of this issue, it is questionable whether the public has achieved the same grasp.

“I think agencies are well aware, I think the region is well aware. When you’re talking about the general population, maybe not,” said Fitzgerald.

A number of misconceptions and stigma surround homelessness and those who are experiencing it. Common assumptions often include stereotypes such as notions that all homeless people are lazy, have substance abuse problems, have criminal pasts and things of that nature.

Dietrich-Bell feels that the population remains “fairly ignorant” to the reality of homelessness.

“People are narrow-minded about homelessness and very judgemental and biased about it, thinking that they understand it and they really don’t understand the real depth of the issue and the real root causes around it.”

But no one understands better the extent of homelessness than those who have experienced it first-hand.

“Honestly, the reason why I think people judge is because they have no idea what it’s like,” said Faulkner, adding that he has been spit at and sworn at while asking for change.

However, some efforts are being made to address this.

“Is the general population aware of it?” asked Vasselin. “I feel for the most part they’re not, but I feel too there’s action taking place that’s changing that.”

Advocacy groups such as HHUG continue to work towards educating the public, and local initiatives such as Strip the Streets, an awareness campaign undertaken by high school students, demonstrate that there is a commitment to overcoming the ignorance toward homelessness in the region.

“What I think I’d like to educate the community more about would be the full supports that it takes to really deal with the issue and eliminate homelessness, that it’s not a really simple kind of an issue,” concluded Flaming. “It’s complex, but it’s something that just takes respecting each person and providing them with supports they need.”

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