John Howard Society of Durham Region
Mission: To reduce the impact of crime and its causes by providing a spectrum of effective prevention and intervention programs.
Main office: 905-579-8482, 75 Richmond Street West, Oshawa, Ontario, L1G 1E3

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Homeless are in Durham

Society needs to be less judgemental for change to occur

July 13, 2005
By Carly Foster

DURHAM - Just because you can't see them doesn't mean they're not there.

They are the homeless, the about-to-be homeless, the people living in substandard housing. Or evicted because they can't pay the rent anymore. They are those couch-surfing with friends, or sleeping on their family's floor.

"It's not so much a visible homeless issue here," said Shirley Van Steen, director of housing for the Region. "There are a lot of people living on the margins."

The federal government's national homeless initiative says there is no reliable method for counting the number of people without homes. By the very nature of their situation, they have no fixed address, are mobile and hidden.

There are a patchwork of numbers for Durham. At the John Howard Society (JHS), the housing services department helped 1,130 households in 2004. In north Durham, 400 families were helped by the homeless prevention program last year - 72 of them were without homes.

When the weather warms up, there are people who live outdoors, social workers say. They live under bridges near creeks and in parks. One JHS workers knows of a family living in a wooded area behind a subdivision in Bowmanville.

"They do it. They just cover it better in Durham," said Elizabeth Allaway, manager of housing services for the JHS and also an outreach/prevention worker. "They disappear at night. They know enough to get out of the way of the police, too."

It's a stark reality for a glossy region like Durham, with manicured lawns, sprawling new shopping centres and schools, where everyone drives a car and the employment rate is high.

And the people?

"Most of them look like you and me," Ms. Allaway said "They want dignity, they want respect, a roof over their heads."

Ms. Allaway and her staff see a lot of single men, but a high number of women, too. In Brock, Scugog and Uxbridge townships, 36 per cent of cases in 2004 were single people. But 29 per cent were single parents with kids and 23 per cent were two adults with kids.

"The swearing, screaming people... they have mental health or substance abuse issues," Ms. Allaway said. "That's not the run-of-the-mill people we deal with."

And the generalized perception that people needing a home can just pull up their boot straps and instantly get a better life doesn't help, she added.

"I take real umbrage with people when they're so quick to condemn," Ms. Allaway said. "You don't know what came before."

Social service workers put it this way: most of us are only one paycheque away from being homeless.

Say, for example, your credit cards are maxed out. Then you lose your job, have no family to help you or you've gone to friends too much. It can easily happen.

"It's so humbling for people who come in and say, 'I can't believe I'm here.'" Ms. Allaway said.

Janet Ries, the prevention/outreach worker in north Durham, agreed.

"People who have never been touched by poverty are so far away from it, they're ignorant," she said. "I don't think society can really appreciate (hard times or homelessness) unless they've lived through it."

Some people are born into different environments - like families on social assistance - and are raised with different life skills, Ms. Ries said. Some people are just overwhelmed with daily survival.

"I believe it's a full-time job to be poor," she said, adding you battle a lack of nutrition and sleep, look for a job and housing and constantly battle collection calls. "Sure adults have to take responsibility, but there are a lot of barriers out there."

One of the biggest precursors to becoming homeless, Ms. Ries said, are ruthless landlords running brutal living spaces.

She's visited people living in basement apartments with perpetually wet floors, apartments without water or heat. One woman was stealing water from a laundromat to bathe and cook with.

Renters and advocates get caught in a Catch 22: if you complain, some landlords dump your belongings outside and change your locks. And if even one building is shut down for substandard living conditions, where do those people go then?

"It's really difficult to find decent housing, or housing at all," Ms. Ries said.

For Larry Rivers, now living in social housing in Oshawa, discovering he was suddenly without a place to go in 2001 was devastating.

"It was sickening," said the Aboriginal artist, who is on Ontario Works and supports himself by selling his paintings. "It was the sickest feeling I've ever had in my life.

"I don't ever want to be homeless again."

More than 4,000 people are sitting on a waiting list for affordable housing in Durham, Ms. Van Steen said. But no new units have been built in years, and huge grants would have to be offered to developers to construct any.

And even if there were more affordable units, getting enough money to pay for housing is another story - especially if you're on Ontario Works or making minimum wage, Ms. Van Steen said.

"The issue is more for the people in our population who have low incomes who can't afford a place to live," she said. "The working poor are having problems: even someone earning minimum wage at $8.15 an hour can't afford $750 in rent."

And that's a low price for a unit, Ms. Allaway said. An average two-bedroom in Bowmanville, for example, is $850 to $900. And rents just get higher the closer you get to Toronto.

When asked whether there's a solution to homelessness, all of those interviewed laughed. Money is the first answer, but it's just a band-aid for the problem as a whole.

There needs to be a national homeless strategy, first off, they say. Housing, obviously, but not just bricks and mortar. Programs are needed to teach people how to cope, pay bills, sustain work, deal with family issues, battle substance abuse.

And most importantly: society needs to be more compassionate.

"This country needs to take care of its own," Ms. Allaway said. "It's great to take care of the rest of the world, but you need to take care of the most vulnerable here.

"You can't just sweep people away."

This is the third in a 12-part series looking at Durham's social services and the people it serves. Next month: Housing