When the Streets are Safer than Affordable Housing

Homelessness andAffordable Housing (2)“Honestly, sometimes it was easier living on the streets”

You may be surprised to learn that I have heard this been said many times. Today, it was said by Sarah – a young person in our art program.

Up until a couple of years ago, Sarah was living on the streets and things were rough. But that all changed when she discovered she was pregnant. She and her partner made the decision to raise their child. They searched for housing and eventually found something affordable with a landlord willing to rent to them.

Since then, both of them have changed their lives dramatically and they put their child first.  They are the thoughtful, dedicated and loving parents to a one year old. They are also working hard to complete their schooling, and both are involved with community advocacy.

But it did not take long for there to be issues with their apartment. Issues like it being unbearably cold in the winter, extremely hot in the summer, serious pest issues and much needed repairs, including water damage, being ignored by both the landlord and bylaw. The apartment does not feel safe and causes the new family endless stress. 

“Things are supposed to be easier when you get housing.” Sarah told me, looking completely worn out.

But the truth is – there may be “affordable” housing in Ottawa – but it is not always safe. So families like Sarah’s, who have no other option but to live in this housing, are victimized by landlords.

Sarah and her partner have been trying for months to find a better apartment. But their limited income, combined with prejudiced landlords who refuse to rent to them make it nearly impossible to find adequate housing. They need a break.

Until then, it is Sarah and her partner’s resilience and resourcefulness that make me confident that they will persevere. But I can’t help but feel angry at the system that keeps them victimized, even in housing.

A Homeless Vet’s Journey: Week 1

For the audio introduction to A Homeless Vet’s Journey click play below:

Kurk had served several tours of duty in the armed forces, serving his country, and some time ago we learned that  he had also been a mercenary. He suffers from what happened in war, and suffers now from Post Tramautic Stress Disorder. When he needed help there was none – no counselling or support to help him recover. He carries this pain and his suffering.

You can easily tell when Kurk is at the drop in. His big booming voice announces that he has arrived – no doubt about that!

He had become more irritable in the past several weeks: he spoke loudly about the injustices of the ‘system’ and how people just were not treated right, and how he really should not ‘be here’ as the government owed him a significant amount of money.

One  drop in day, Kurk was so upset that he was yelling at someone who cut in front of him in line, and yelled that you can’t expect anything more from ‘these people’. It may have been the contents of the food hamper that day, or someone had actually cut in front of him in line, or maybe just that he really didn’t belong here with all these other people. Usually it doesn’t take too long for complaints about the government to arise: the government was withholding money from him that was rightfully his!  They had even ‘frozen’ his bank account!

His voice had risen beyond the level of disruption, and I watched as Jelica walked over to Kurk to calm him down. There was a brief interaction, and Kurk finally settled down. In the midst of their conversation, he said something like, “… AND I HAVE BRAIN CANCER AGAIN…”

I later spoke to him in the hallway, alone. He told me that he had been through two previous episodes of cancer, and this third recurrence caused him serious concern. His eyes welled up with tears and he cried when he told me that his cancer had returned. He continued to cry as I offered a prayer to God for help.

Note: Today there is help for those who return from war and suffer from PTSD. This has not always been available to our veterans and they suffer terribly. ADD to that the challenges of not having a place of your own, and it’s not too difficult to imagine that life will look pretty gloomy, to say the least.

Interact: How might you cope under similiar circumstances? Where would you go? Who would you talk to? How could you manage?

Ken MacLaren, Executive Director

(Kurk’s Journey is a 10-Part Series.  Stay tuned for Part 2)

 

Searching for Affordable Housing

You would think that in a city like Ottawa, when a vulnerable citizen faces a crisis and loses their housing, there would be a system in place to support him in finding affordable housing.

And there is. But the truth is – the system is flawed.  

Take Jack: a young man in his twenties with a history of trauma, family conflict, homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. He has worked hard over the past five years I’ve known him to make positive choices like getting sober and finding legitimate employment.

This summer, he lost his housing. He was devastated by the prospect of starting over again. With no family support, and not wanting to enter the shelter system, he opted for staying outside.  

I worked hard with him to find housing. We applied for the Social Housing Registry, YMCA monthly housing, the Salvation Army Housing Response Team and any other housing wait lists we could find. Each time, Jack was put on a list and told to wait.

Every day, he spent hours searching for housing online or went to agencies that specialize is helping with housing – but there was very little he could afford. Even the bug infested rooming houses were often out of his price range. 

As the months went on, and it began to get colder, Jack grew more desperate. He even questioned if he should go back to selling drugs so he could at least afford a place to live. My heart broke when he said “No matter what I do, I’m never going to get ahead.”

Jack is by no means an outlier. Over 10 000 households are on the Social Housing wait list this year, waiting an average of 3 years, with many waiting much longer.

Jack never heard back from any housing wait list.

But there is hope in this story – Jack did find housing. He found it on his own. It’s expensive for what it is – a small room in rooming house, but at least it is safe and warm. But the hope is not in our housing system, but rather the resilience of young men like Jack, who persevere despite a painful past and a flawed system.

Danielle’s Story: Episode 7 – What’s happening now

 

“Danielle’s Story” is a series running throughout December.
To listen to the audio backgrounder from Family Radio CHRI, click the play button below. Follow along all month to hear this amazing story!

Jason baptized me in the Ottawa River. He used to drive me to church with his family. It was a turning point in my life.

I graduated from the art program, and entered Algonquin College for Animation.  I graduated last year.

Right now, I am getting closer to getting a studio job as an animator.  In another couple of weeks I’ll do another interview and then I will be able to complete my homelessness journey, and support myself without relying on others.

My art is more than creativity, it was my means to escape the horrors of abuse and homelessness. It kept me going. I  escaped the temptation of drugs, and turned to my stories when I needed to escape that world.  It was my home when I had none.

Homelessness taught me what happiness is all about. It is not about materialism. It is not about having money.

I was happiest, when I was with my friend and her mother.

I was happiest when I was at OIM, as a part of the art program, and their staff and volunteers offered so much – support, encouragement and acceptance.

This has made all the difference in my life. Life is about love.

 

Please give consideration with your family to adding just one more person to your Christmas list and sponsoring one of the youth in our program for only $30 /month?

Click “Donate Now” and make a lasting difference in the life of someone who just never had a chance before, just like Danielle.

Danielle’s Story: Episode 3 – A repose in the midst of trouble

“Danielle’s Story” is a series running throughout December.
To listen to the audio backgrounder from Family Radio CHRI, click the play button below. Follow along all month to hear this amazing story!

As soon as I turned 16, my friend’s mother invited me to live with them. It was a very emotional experience finally escaping my family once and for all.

It was a highlight of my life.

I remember laying down in the small bedroom that they let me stay in. They painted a nice cloud on the ceiling and they all were so very sweet.

At the same time, I was worried about how they might treat me. I had these panic attacks, with my heart racing and feeling like I was about to die.

I was confused emotionally, and scared, I guess.

My friends mom was very structured. She taught me about doing chores: doing dishes, laundry and all that. She never yelled at me, included me in the trips to the cottage, included me in all their family activities, helping in the garden.

They noticed that I was struggling with my homework, so they sat down with me at the table and helped me focus. I just wanted to write stories, but they helped me get through school.

 Living with my friend proved to be the safest time in my life that I have ever felt. My grades went from D’s to A’s. 

Stay tuned to Family Radio CHRI as two episodes unfold each week following the 8 o’clock morning and 5 o’clock evening news. As you prepare for Christmas with your family remember there are kids who are all alone.

Why not let them know that they are NOT alone?

Please give consideration with your family to adding just one more person to your Christmas list and sponsoring one of the youth in our program for only $30 /month?

Click “Donate Now” and make a lasting difference in the life of someone who just never had a chance before, just like Danielle.

He fought like a soldier

Every Tuesday for the last several years, you could always count on Marcel to greet you at the drop-in. Walking in first thing in the morning (with a Tim Horton’s cup in hand, of course), he would make his way to his regular table, but not without first greeting each staff member and volunteer.

He had a special connection with two of our volunteers: Ken and Kirk, who are both veterans. You see, Marcel was a proud veteran himself – having served in the Canadian military for several years. But like so many other veterans, after leaving the military he felt lost. He struggled with alcoholism for years, which eventually led him to the streets. But Marcel was a strong man, who persevered. He fought to get off the alcohol and to reclaim his life. He got sober and got a small apartment. But even after surviving homelessness, his life was not easy. He struggled daily with depression and PTSD. But he fought. He fought like a soldier.

This Tuesday at the drop-in, Marcel did not show up to greet us. One of his friends brought us the news that he had died over the weekend due to a heart condition. There were tears shed, as friends comforted each other.

So this Remembrance Day, the OIM community is remembering Marcel. We remember his courage and his resilience.

We thank him for his service.

And we will miss him dearly.

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Marcel at the drop-in.

 

Changing the Legacy of Youth Homelessness

How can we change the legacy of youth homelessness in Ottawa?

This is a complicated question with an array of possible answers.

Back in June, we partnered with A Way Home Ottawa and set up a table at Glowfair. We asked people to answer this question in just one sentence, and write it on a piece of cardboard.

Tons of people made signs and pretty soon our table was surrounded by cardboard. People had all sorts of great suggestions: more affordable housing, advocacy, community outreach… But of all the signs, the one that stood out the most was a sign made by a little girl, who was probably around 7 years old.

When asked how to help homeless youth she wrote: Love everyone. Every day. Every night.

love everybody sign

Yeah….I think that if we all took her suggestion the legacy of youth homelessness in this city would drastically change.

 

 

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Celiac on the Streets

Some people have a policy to only give food to panhandlers. Some even get offended if the panhandler rejects the offer of food. For these people, let me tell you about Sal….

Sal has struggled20160211_151618 with homelessness for 5 years. She’s 20 now, and finally has an apartment – but she’s still struggling to make ends meet. Her health has always been a challenge as she has experienced debilitating digestive problems. After numerous doctors’ visits and tests, she was recently diagnosed with Celiac Disease – a hypersensitivity to gluten. I saw her on the street the other day and she was panhandling. She looked very thin. Since her diagnosis she’s lost about 60 pounds. With tears in her eyes she told me how hard it’s been to eat gluten free. Her small social assistance cheque does not leave her much for food so she depends on drop-ins and food banks – both of which generally offer cheap, gluten rich foods like pasta. She says lots of people give her food when she’s panhandling, but it’s usually donuts, muffins or sandwiches – all of which she can’t eat. But she accepts them anyways so as not to appear rude.

While it is very kind to offer someone food, it’s good to remember that giving people something like a gift card allows the person to choose what they eat. For someone like Sal, this can mean the difference between eating comfortably or not eating at all.

 

“What Am I Supposed To Do?”

Last week, I was doing outreach downtown when I came across Ben.

Ben is one of the “oldtimers” – one of several men who have been on the streets for decades. He was friends with all the oldtimers……Ed, Carl, Joseph…..all of whom have passed away over the past year. Ben says he’s one of the few left.

2015 has been a big year for him so far – he finally got housing.

His eyes lit up when he started talking about his new place. “It’s a huge one bedroom! I’ve even got a flat screened TV!”

But as he continued to talk about his apartment, his tone changed… “I don’t know what I’m doing down here….”

“I know I shouldn’t be downtown. I know I shouldn’t be doing this….” He showed me the bottle of rubbing alcohol in his pocket, “But I don’t know what to do. What am I supposed to do?”

Ben’s days used to be comprised of panning change to make money for a drink, and then sharing drinks with friends in the park. Then going to sleep, waking up, and doing it all over again. It may have been unhealthy, but this lifestyle provided 3 important things: routine, purpose and community.

Now he has housing – but what community? What routine? What purpose?

 

 

Shane’s Story, Episode 5: My Own Place

Shane’s Story is a eight episode blog post where Shane tells her story in her own words.  Each week in December, on Mondays and Thursdays at 8 a.m. you can click on both the radio spot and then read the Episode of this special gal’s story. Tweet it to your friends – it gets better as we get closer to Christmas, and Shane’s special Christmas wish to each of you. Hold tight! it is going to be a great ride! Merry Christmas!”

Listen to a part of her story by clicking the ‘play’ button below, then read the rest of her story in this post:

I got my place last spring.

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The door of Shane’s room the day she moved in. Notice the hole where the door handle should be.

I met this kid panhandling and he lived in the building. I told him I really needed a place. I told him I had a dog and really need somewhere safe and warm to keep him. He told me there was a room available in his rooming house. It was beside his room, and the place was really disgusting.  It was really gross. It’s a building full of bachelors, of addicts and dealers but that’s what you get. There were spiders, cockroaches, bedbugs – but there’s no house centipedes though, and I’m pretty happy about that. None! The room though was an absolute pigsty. There was grime to the point that I had to scrape it off with a knife. There was something that kept coming up off the tile that was really gooey and sticky. Really sticky. You had to scrub it off with hot water.  I don’t know what I was cleaning up there, but it was pretty bad. Once I got it tolerable, I put my stuff in there. It took like two weeks to get it at least decent. That’s like without cleaning the walls or without cleaning the window, or checking under the bed box to see what garbage is under there. I still don’t know. It’s a secret (laughter). The underneath of my bed – I don’t want to know. (laughter)

It’s weird sharing a shower and a toilet with like 20 other people. They pee all over the floor. I have to wear my shoes into the toilet, you have to take toilet paper with you and bring it back with you.

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The floor of Shane’s room.

I’m paying $470 for a tiny little infested room that’s not even up to code. Like one of my windows is not really a window – it’s a board with a nail holding it in place. I had to make my own ‘fixes’ – they wouldn’t put caulking under the box for my bed and the bugs were crawling in and out of there. ‘No, don’t do that to me. I don’t want bugs near my bed’, so I finally got some white duct tape and taped it. They (landlords) don’t really do much.

Bedbugs? Oh yea. Landlord only sprays one room at a time, so each time the landlord sprays one room, the bedbugs that survive just over to the next person’s room. He sprays that room and they crawl upstairs to where it’s safe. They just keep going. We just push them around really. I’m waiting for the time they push them back into my room, ‘cause I’m highly allergic. My face will swell and it’s bad. I had to go to the doctor a couple of times, and get hard core allergy medication.

They’re not in my room now. I had to go out and buy powder that’s safe for animals. I put that on the floor around my bed, and if they come in, they’re dead.

You brush it into the baseboards, and if they try to get in there and hide, they die. It’s pretty bug proof.  Cockroaches though, I don’t know how to get rid of them. They just keep comin’. From my dresser too- I don’t know why ‘cause in there there’s only clean clothes. They’re not in my pantry though. Not even a nuclear bomb will kill them.

bed bugs

A swollen bed bug bite on Shane’s arm.