Life on the streets
Copyright © 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.
All rights reserved.
Three levels of government struggle to find a solution for homeless problem
By STEVE ERWIN—Ottawa Sun
In the last four months, Ghislain Choquette has been mugged, fired from his job and evicted from his apartment.
Some might say he’s also lost his dignity.
At 22, Choquette found himself spending his days in the Byward Market, sitting cross-legged at street corners begging businessmen for lint-covered loonies, or peering through car windows gripping a well-used squeegee.
On this night, he’s just finished his soup at the Shepherds of Good Hope shelter, where he’ll settle in for the night in one of the facility’s 75 beds. The diminutive Choquette seems out of place among the dozens of men wandering about the shelter’s lounge, most lighting cigarette after cigarette while either chatting with others or sitting alone mumbling to themselves.
Choquette began his stay at the shelter in December. He says he wants to escape the streets.
“I’m trying to get a one-bedroom apartment,” Choquette says. “I’m not sure when. The waiting list is pretty long.”
For now, it’s a day-by-day struggle to survive.
“On the plus side, it’s made me tougher,” he says of life on the streets, far from the family home he left behind for reasons he won’t reveal. “My sister doesn’t like me living downtown. She says I should get away from people around here. But it’s easier said than done.”
Just 61/2 credits short of his high school diploma, Choquette hopes to save enough from his monthly welfare cheques to attend an adult school and move on with his life.
If he’s successful, he’ll break away from the estimated 6,000 homeless men, women and teens in the region who turn to emergency shelters each year. He’ll also shake loose from a cycle of poverty that seems unbreakable to transient bunkmates 10, 20, 30, even 40 years older than himself.
“Some have been here since we opened 15 years ago,” says Mary Cleary, director for the Shepherds of Good Hope.
Cleary says there’s no “typical” description of a homeless person, but there are patterns. Alcoholism and mental illness have taken their toll on many longtime shelter residents. Drug abuse is common among the younger residents.
“Drugs, like cocaine, hit them so much faster,” she says. “It’s scary to watch how they become addicted so fast.”
And while three levels of government debate who should foot the bill to fix the problem, the health of the men under her care continues its downward spiral.
“There hasn’t been a great flux in the numbers (of homeless people),” Cleary says. “What we do notice is the people are needier. The addicts are more addicted, the health problems are greater ... people are not as well.
“But we deal with what we have.”
Exactly what should happen has become a hot topic. In recent months, municipalities have told their provincial and federal counterparts of their inability to solve the financial crisis of homelessness.
Last month, Vancouver joined Ottawa, the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton and Toronto in declaring homelessness “a national disaster.” Downloading, they agree, has placed municipalities behind the eight-ball.
The dire situation was brought to the province’s doorstep recently when the body of a homeless man was found across the street from Queen’s Park.
And the plight of the poor received national attention last Wednesday when about 150 homeless people and activists tried unsuccessfully to meet with Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
The demonstration, organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty—a group of Toronto-based social and political activists— was planned to highlight the need for more federal cash for social housing. But tension mounted when RCMP riot police were called after Tory Leader Joe Clark faced a shoving match with protesters.
Eleven demonstrators were arrested, including one man charged with assaulting a police officer.
Activists hope the feds will respond in Tuesday’s budget. The federal government pays a hefty portion of the mortgages on housing projects built years ago, but they’ve opted out of new projects since 1993, with the exception of Native housing projects on reserves.
Ontario followed suit in 1995. As of Jan. 1, 1998, following a complex redistribution of funding arrangements, much of the province’s social housing share became the region’s responsibility.
“There’s a great worry here,” says Luc Legault, director of central operations for the region’s social services. “Clearly, municipalities don’t have the tax base to increase social housing stock.”
The province still pays 80% of shelter operating costs, but the region’s share of the expense tops $7 million.
Last November, regional council approved an increase of $60,000 in funding for three shelters for men—the Shepherds of Good Hope, the Salvation Army and the Union Mission for Men. Matching provincial funding raises the total increase to more than $300,000.
But shelters, originally treated as a short-term solution, are full while an estimated 15,000 names fill the expanding waiting lists for affordable housing.
Long-term solutions have been proposed by a city task force in Toronto, where in 1996 almost 26,000 people made use of the city’s shelters.
The report, chaired by Dr. Anne Golden, recommends shelters return to their original purpose of providing emergency, short-term service. It calls for a multi-year program to preserve existing housing and increase the supply. It also recommends a national homelessness prevention strategy.
Coun. Alex Munter, chair of the region’s community services committee, has asked regional staff to examine Toronto’s recommendations while preparing their own report.
“I agree the solution to homelessness is not more emergency shelters. The only solution is housing,” he says.
The region’s report is scheduled for completion by mid-March. Munter expects some of the recommendations will meet quick council approval.
Any parallels to Toronto’s proposals, which ask the province to spend another $230 million a year on housing subsidies, may meet similar reservations from Queen’s Park.
“Ontarians already spend more than twice per capita on social housing as other provinces,” Community and Social Services Minister Janet Ecker said after the release of Golden’s report.
But, she added, the province is committed to working with the federal and municipal governments to solve the homeless problem.
Ontario’s Liberal health critic is optimistic continued public pressure will force the federal government’s hand.
Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. recently added $50 million to its national program to restore dilapidated shelters and other low-income housing. That doubled the amount in their yearly budget. About $1 million is earmarked for Ottawa.
But with no growing public housing program yet in sight, Ottawa Centre Liberal MPP Richard Patten says provincial efforts must generate affordable private housing, priced for tenants at the $400-$500 per month range.
“We have to look at incentives for private developers to build affordable housing on the rental side,” Patten says, pointing to builders’ development charges as a typical barrier to private development.
He maintains the need for federal and provincial involvement.
“You can’t just cut, cut, cut,” he says, “and you can’t just dump the problem on the municipalities.”
Senior governments have to be shamed into action, adds Munter.
“We’re willing to address the issue, but we cannot resolve it alone,” he says. “The property tax base simply doesn’t have the means to battle the issue on their own.”
Judging by the growing waiting list for affordable housing, if the government builds it, they will come. However, a significant number of shelter-dwellers may not be willing to go, Cleary warns.
“You have to be careful,” she says. “When they leave the shelter, they get scared. If you talk housing, they may back off, and you risk losing them to the streets.”
Cleary says there’s an incredible fear of change, and support services for men and women who can’t live in complete independence remain scarce.
“There was one man who had been here six years,” she says. “We asked him how long he had been in the shelter, and he thought about it, then said: ‘Maybe a month.’
“For us, it was a revelation. Many of these people live minute-to-minute and don’t think about time.”
Take a stroll down Elgin St. near Gladstone any day of the week, and chances are you’ll find 39-year-old “Rock,” shivering in an old black trenchcoat, his black-rimmed glasses fogged over from another chilly afternoon panhandling.
“Got a cigarette?” he asks, and when the request is obliged, a bright smile briefly lights up his pock-marked face.
Rock isn’t clear on how long he’s been panhandling, or how he got on the streets.
“I had a job in a restaurant in ‘79,” Rock says when pressed about his
past. “Since then, I’ve had a few odd jobs, some here, some in Toronto.”
He shrugs at the prospect of finding some stability in his life.
“Yeah ... yeah, I’d like to do that, but ...” he mumbles, his voice trailing off.
“Their options are being cut,” says Diane Morrison of the Union Mission for Men, a 105-bed shelter. “They each need a support worker, but they’re just not there.”
Whether they douse their sorrows with whisky and beer or mouthwash and after-shave, alcohol is the drug of choice among the older homeless people, Morrison says, adding mental illness is also rampant.
Cory Gray, 29, came to Ottawa from Baffin Island seven years ago with dreams of a new life.
But schizophrenia put his dreams on hold. Since losing his job with a west-end publishing firm years ago, Gray has stumbled through odd jobs trying to make ends meet. Eventually, he turned to the Shepherds of Good Hope for help.
Gray believes he’s on the right track. Crediting Linda, a Royal Ottawa nurse, for her help, Gray leaves the streets each day for a seat inside an Ottawa library.
“I’m trying to keep my mind in good condition,” he says, adding his illness hasn’t hampered his creativity. “I can write for hours. I’m not a stupid man.”
Gray is optimistic he can pull out of the poverty cycle.
“I’m almost in a position where I can make a step forward, but I’m not there yet. But the hardest part is, there’s certain people you know will never get out.
“I believe some people were born not to succeed. They don’t have the motivation. It’s very easy to get into that spot, but I’m very careful. I don’t make the same mistakes any more.”
Some mental conditions, Cleary says, can manifest themselves in paranoia so strong some men and women prefer to sleep under bridges in -30C weather than beneath the blankets of a shelter bed.
“They can’t take the lack of privacy. If there are too many people around they don’t feel safe,” she says, adding the fear of being robbed also keeps some homeless people away. “We do our best but inevitably, things get stolen.”
Women face the same problems as their male counterparts, says the head of Ottawa’s only shelter for homeless women, but are often forgotten.
“Homeless women tend to be invisible. They’re not as noticed as the men are,” says Sue Garvey, director of Cornerstone, which fills its 40 beds every night.
Garvey says the number of homeless women is growing. By her own staff’s estimates, 395 women used the shelter in 1998. Another 995 were turned away.
“There’s no question it’s getting worse for women,” Garvey says. “A lot of times they go back to abusive relationships and do desperate things to find somewhere warm to stay.”
But, she says, funding the shelters isn’t enough. “It’s a Band-Aid solution,” she says. “Even though we’re pushing for more emergency beds to meet the immediate need, what we really need is safe housing.
“It’s hard to get on with your life when you’re huddled together with 39 other women every night.” Still, she says staff have excelled with the resources at hand.
“We’re able to connect with people on an individual basis,” Garvey says. “We’re doing a great job with what we have.”
Making a connection, shelter directors agree, is the key to building a sense of hope.
“At least there’s kind of a family here,” Morrison says, adding eight years of working with the homeless has left her exhausted, “but it’s the greatest job I’ve ever had.
“You stop judging people. Like everyone else, I used to walk by and
they scared me. But you begin to realize on the inside of each and every
one of them is a story.”
Copyright © 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.
All rights reserved.