In the midst of doing what we do, we're always exploring new and interesting ways of improving what we do. This week we had the opportunity to visit two innovative projects in the heart of Toronto.
The Stop is a leader in the Community Food Centres movement that "strives to increase access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds health and community and challenges inequality".
Sketch creates opportunities for young people living street involved, homeless or otherwise on the margins, to experience the transformative power of the arts. They're in the process of moving into a new location that's part of an innovative project by Artscape. Incidentally, The Stop's Wychwood Barns location that we visited is also a collaboration with Artspace.
By Cecilia Nasmith, Northumberland Today
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."
By Cecilia Nasmith, Northumberland Today
Wednesday, March 5, 2014 11:39:58 EST AM
NORTHUMBERLAND - In many forms, homelessness exists in Northumberland. This three-part story will explore several aspects. Today's instalment offers a look at how life's sudden turns can leave someone vulnerable and in need of emergency shelter.
Youth homelessness figures provided by Northumberland United Way say 60% stay in shelters, 25% couch-surf and 15% are on the street.
Meet Sam, who has done all three.
David Sheffield, community outreach worker with Green Wood Coalition, recently brought Sam in for an interview — a 24-year-old man dressed in as many layers as he could scrounge though without gloves, clutching a small red gym bag that contained his belongings.
Originally from Peterborough, Sam (not his real name) moved to Northumberland County last March to try to reunite with his mother. They'd had a difficult relationship, but she'd just had surgery for a brain tumour and he hoped things could be patched up.
Not only did they fail to establish any real closeness, he said, she lives in a seniors building, so there's no hope of finding housing with her.
Sam stuck around, hoping to build a fresh start for himself. He got a job and found a place, and all seemed well. Then there were layoffs at his place of work, and he found himself at Transition House in Cobourg.
He managed to find a job and another place, but he lost the job and lost the place and had to return to Transition House.
A friend asked him to share the rent on a place, which seemed a good solution. But the friend had issues of his own and lost the place after a couple of months.
This time Sam didn't return to Transition House. They had no vacancies, so he lived on the street.
"It's been struggle after struggle after struggle," Sam said.
Sheffield explained that Transition House is one of very few shelters in Ontario that accommodates families, along with single men and single women. It's a unique model, but it requires reserving some bedrooms for family use. So some members of the county's affordable-housing committee reject the premise that more emergency shelter is needed because Transition House is almost never full. At the same time, Sheffield said, single people often can't get in because there isn't space.
Even when Sam was able to stay at Transition House, that was not without problems.
Though Transition House requires a signed confidentiality agreement of anyone who stays there, Sam was more than willing to discuss his experiences because he understands he is permanently red-flagged — banned from the premises.
Executive director Diane Keast of Transition House would not discuss Sam's specific situation because of confidentiality considerations. But she reiterated that rules must be enforced because of the chance that children might be on the premises.
"If a person comes back and they have been drinking, we cannot allow them back in the house, drinking or using, because we take in family situations with children," Keast said.
"If a person shows any aggression, they will be asked to leave. Aggression is not tolerated, again because we have children in the house. Those would be reasons why somebody might be red-flagged."
How permanent the ban is depends on what has occurred, she said — how many occurrences there have been and how severe.
"We just don't red-flag individuals unless there has been ongoing issues. There has to have been ongoing and severe issues," Keast said.
"Individuals are given opportunities to reverse the situation — they can talk to staff.
"Individuals just aren't asked to leave for the sake of leaving. We are a shelter, and do want to assist individuals to get back on their feet. But because we service so many different individuals in different age brackets, we have to be very strict, and there has to be rules and regulations in place.
"Therefore, if individuals find it difficult to stay here for whatever the reasons are, and they show aggression or come back after drinking, those have to be in place because of those age brackets we service.
"That is very difficult. But when we ask individuals to leave, we do give them options where they can go."
Typically, they are sent to the police station to see if they can get a motel voucher and invited to come back when they have resolved the issues that led to whatever unacceptable behaviour caused the problem.
Sam denies having been in a substance-abuse situation or being unduly disruptive, though he did chafe at some of the rules (such as the curfew) and found staff unwilling to step in when he felt it appropriate — like the time one of the men came back "drugged out of his mind."
When Sam complained, he said, "Staff got mad and told me, 'Let us do our job.'"
A debate over the matter with the staffer became an argument. Voices were raised. The staffer declared Sam out of control and kicked him out with a red-flagging.
He fought the red-flagging, even went to the Cobourg Police for help. One officer approached Transition House and got the restriction removed — and even got them to open up one of the family rooms for a couple of days.
"No less than two days later, I'm kicked out again," Sam related.
It was an argument with another man staying at Transition House that provoked this move. Voices were raised, the other man shoved Sam, but Sam was the one who was kicked out.
He tried to get the police involved, but their inspection of the security cameras showed that the incident probably happened in a blind spot and they could not help.
The police tried to advocate with Transition House on Sam's behalf once more, but to no avail. He was red-flagged again at the only homeless shelter in Cobourg — the only one, in fact, closer than Oshawa, Peterborough and Lindsay.
"How's a man from Northumberland County supposed to go to Lindsay and still build a life in Northumberland County? I am pretty much forced to move out of this community, or stay here and live how I'm living. They don't leave me much of an option," Sam said.
The Peterborough shelter is located in what was once his home town, but Sam said he'd left what he termed "not a good life" behind last year to get a fresh start in Northumberland. And the shelter there is not safe, he added. There are 30 to 50 guys in a single room, with lots of drugs and lots of assaults.
"It would be like putting a lamb in a cave full of wolves. Nothing good can come out of it."
Sam understands that Transition House must have rules, but he can't help wondering why they need some of them.
And when you leave, he added, you wouldn't dare say anything because you might need to go back at some point in the future.
Being permanently red-flagged there, he said, he has nothing to lose. If people could speak freely, he said, maybe things could change.
But that thought does little to warm a man with no shelter in one of Canada's harshest winters in living memory.
In Part 3: The option left to Sam. Click here.
From Northumberland Today, Monday March 3, 2014:
In many forms, homelessness exists in Northumberland. This three-part series will explore several aspects. Today's instalment offers a look at the big picture of local homelessness.
NORTHUMBERLAND — David Sheffield, community outreach worker with Green Wood Coalition in Port Hope, was feeling concern following a discussion on the need for emergency housing at a recent meeting of the county Affordable Housing Committee (of which Sheffield is a member).
"They were saying there's no need, there's no data to support that. Then, during the course of the week, I'm working with three people who are homeless," Sheffield said in a recent interview.
"That invisibility, the sense that it's being taken care of — that's part of the difficulty."
Homelessness is not a primary part of the coalition's mandate, Sheffield said, so much as working with people who fall through the cracks. Part of that work is collaborating with services currently in place to find a positive solution.
The best way to do that, he added, is to help create an infrastructure that recognizes the realities. Lacking that, any solution would involve a patchwork approach.
The three cases of homelessness Sheffield encountered in a single February week included two teenagers whose parents are in unstable situations, who wanted to leave and make their own way.
"They are currently couch-surfing, and that's a typical pattern if you have a network in a small town," Sheffield reported.
"At this point, they have no support of any kind, but that's not unusual.
"During the warmer months, some of those people would be living outside or in situations that aren't meant for human habitation. In the winter, it really becomes difficult. They move from couch to couch, often in overcrowded and dangerous situations."
Then there's a young man we'll call Sam, whose situation is a step down even from that.
"Sam, without housing in the winter time and having no other recourse, is the more extreme example, and that's less frequent.
"Over the course of this year, there have been probably half a dozen crisis situations that came to us. And I know there are other crisis situations coming to other front-line workers," Sheffield said.
"In our work, we are connected to a community of people, and in that community there would be a number of people who are constantly in some state of homelessness."
The definition of homelessness can be as narrow or as broad as one wishes to make it. In Sheffield's work, he tends to subscribe to the Canadian Homelessness Research Network's definition that is in use at the York University Homeless Hub. It has four main categories and 12 sub-categories.
"Sam would be in the number-one category. At any given time in Northumberland County, you can find people in all 11 other categories," he said.
"Absolute homelessness or street homelessness is somewhat rare. But if that is the only way you define homelessness, you miss the rest of the definition. On the farthest end of the scale, that includes people who are one pay cheque away from losing their place. What they all have in common is anxiety around retaining housing and the inability to do anything about it.
"In those 12 categories, people move around among them — people who are currently living free on someone's couch or making some kind of arrangement, people living in motels, people who over the course of a year live at four different addresses because they are not able to maintain housing for a variety of reasons.
"And if you had four addresses in a year, that probably means you have gone through four landlords," Sheffield pointed out.
"In a small community, it will become increasingly difficult to find a place to rent — and there's a shortage of housing here, with a very low vacancy rate and relatively high rent rates. A single person on Ontario Works will get $600 a month. The average in the Cobourg-Port Hope area is $800 to $850 for a one-bedroom apartment."
Since the accepted definition of affordable housing is that it costs no more than one-third of your income, Sheffield said, affordable housing for someone on Ontario Works would be $200 a month.
"There are rare situations of shared accommodations, rooming situations that can get lower. But when those exist, they tend to be $300 to $400 a month," he said.
"That might the best situation for a single person getting welfare. Otherwise, people end up paying their whole cheque for rent somewhere, or go into a situation with other people that is unsafe and leads to other social challenges."
Part 2: The next installment offers a look at how life's sudden turns can leave someone vulnerable and in need of emergency shelter. Click here.
A year ago, we presented the Academy Award-winning documentary film, 'Inocente' during a community event at Trinity College School's theatre.
"At 15, Inocente refuses to let her dream of becoming an artist be caged by being an undocumented immigrant forced to live homeless for the last nine years. Color is her personal revolution and its sweep on her canvases creates a world that looks nothing like her own dark past."
Since then, people have been asking about Inocente Izucar, the young woman featured in the film. Where is she? How is she doing? David Sheffield contacted her for an update.
Here's what she has to say for herself:
Thank you so much for your message and for what you do. I am 20 years old now, I rented my first apartment when I turned 18, me and my mom are doing so much better. I moved back in with her last October.
I have been supporting myself though my art sales. Last year consisted of traveling around the US and speaking to high schools, homeless shelters, and community gatherings.
I hope to go to college this year.
Follow Inocente's progress and purchase her artwork at http://www.originalinocenteart.com
Green Wood provides assistance to many people who are homeless, according to the Canadian Definition of Homelessness created by the Homeless Hub at York University. That definition describes a spectrum that ranges from living without any shelter, on one end, to insecure housing, on the other end. For those living on that spectrum, there are common anxieties as well as a shared powerlessness to change one's circumstances.
"The problem of homelessness and housing exclusion refers to the failure of society to ensure that adequate systems, funding and support are in place so that all people, even in crisis situations, have access to housing."
-Canadian Homeless Research Network
While we don't see a high number of people in the category of 'absolute' or 'street' homelessness, the people in our community who do fall into that group are particularly vulnerable due to their invisibility, and to the lack of services available that could address their need.
We've been working with one such individual this month (a particularly cold and snowy winter to be outside), and finding safe shelter for him has been particularly frustrating. Contrary to what one might think, there is a cost to not providing housing for people.
In spite of living outdoors (yes in February, in Cobourg, Ontario) for one week, couch-surfing (not as much fun as it might sound) for two weeks, the cost of assisting this person, with a patchwork of emergency shelter situations, exceeded $900 this month. That money came from government sources as well as community-funded organizations like Green Wood Coalition, and doesn't include the working hours of various social service providers.
Along with the members of the Northumberland Affordable Housing Committee, we are actively working to define the needs of homeless people in our community, and to seek creative solutions that will bring peo