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.