PORT HOPE / COBOURG - In many forms, homelessness exists in Northumberland. This three-part story explores several aspects. Today's instalment looks at what options are left to a homeless man who has been barred from Transition House.
Whether one might consider it just or unjust, Sam's last — and permanent — ouster from Transition House happened during a February week that seemed to have endless snow.
What might happen to someone in this situation was the subject of a recent meeting of the county affordable-housing committee, Green Wood Coalition community outreach worker David Sheffield said recently.
"Dave Alexander of the Salvation Army said, when people are red-flagged from Transition House, they have a voucher program administered through the Cobourg and Port Hope police, which provides for a night at a motel," Sheffield said.
When Sam (not his real name) was banned from Transition House, the Cobourg police helped Sam get a voucher. The next day, he came to Sheffield's attention.
It was 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Sheffield recalled.
"In a small community, most of the social services are not available over the weekend. There's no one to talk to at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon," he stated.
Transition House wasn't a possibility. Tim Hortons is open around the clock, but they have a rule about loitering.
"You've got to constantly have a coffee in your hand, and that can get pretty expensive," 24-year-old Sam said.
He was considering going to the hospital emergency department with a made-up story, but they called the Cobourg police to ask about another voucher. They learned that it's exceedingly rare to get more than one.
"It was -10 degrees. The wind chill was -16. It was dark. This was Sam's last chance to find a roof for the night," Sheffield said.
Both have the highest praise for a police officer who went through a lot of trouble and risked a lot to get a second voucher against all odds.
"If somebody ends up in the hospital with frostbite, I don't know if that's a good outcome, either," Sheffield commented.
"We knew we had pushed the limits. We knew it was the weekend — two more nights to get through before we could talk to anybody.
"I posted something about the need on Facebook as an opportunity to draw attention on a cold night. Someone saw it and said they would make a donation to cover his accommodation over the weekend. We were able to provide coverage for him until Monday."
On Monday, Sam learned he had been cut off Ontario Works, that his file had been shut down. It turned out to be a bureaucratic snafu, but it tied him up for a couple of days that he should have been devoting to obtaining a roof over his head.
For now, until he secures an address, Sam cannot get a full cheque. He can get what is called a monthly $200 basic-needs allowance — $200 to cover everything for 30 days.
"That's a motel for the night, and a little bit of food, and then I'm back on the street," he said.
Thanks to the Port Hope police, he got a voucher for a motel Monday night. But it was a long process, since he doesn't know Port Hope.
"I was almost ready to tell them to put me downstairs (in a cell) for the night — a lot of people commit petty crime because they'll get three square meals and a place to stay. I'm not willing to do that. I'd rather build an igloo in a snowbank."
Interviewed Wednesday of that week, Sam had spent Tuesday night in a motel, courtesy of the Green Wood Coalition.
"It's been one jump after another, nothing but hassle and drama," he said.
Being fairly new here, Sam has few friends to couch-surf with. But he is determined to build a good life for himself.
"I care about what people think about me. I don't want people talking behind my back everywhere I go. I've made a few friends, but I've also had to get rid of friends because of bad choices I don't want to get involved in."
"That's one of the difficulties when you're living on the edge," Sheffield agreed.
"The people you are most likely to encounter have various other struggles themselves. Some may be willing or able to help. But with some, you are going to get swallowed up in their issues."
Looking ahead on Sam's behalf, Sheffield has canvassed ads to see what it costs to rent a room. The cheapest one he could find, which is really small and unfurnished, would be $550 a month. From there they go up to $700.
When you only get $600 a month, he said, how do you do your laundry, how do you eat, how do you buy personal-hygiene products?
It's not as if Sam doesn't want to support himself. He did get a couple of jobs with the local employment agencies, but winter time is a tough time to find work.
He's also hampered by not having a driver's license. Not only is he not suitable for some jobs, he said, but he'd have no way to commute. One agency offered him work in Bowmanville, but he turned it down because he'd have no way to get to and from the job. Since then, he said, that particular agency hasn't called him back.
Even if they had something for him, he added, how would they reach him? He has long since lost his phone and has no money to put on it anyway.
"That's the last of my worries," he said.
Sheffield repeated the Green Wood philosophy.
"We feel everyone — regardless of their circumstances, whether there's alcohol or they got into a fight or whatever — still deserves a safe place to live and food to eat in a country like Canada," Sheffield said.
"We have got places to live. We have got food to eat. It's the distribution that is the problem."