A place to call home: redefining rural homelessness
By Angela Long
Published Aug. 23, 2016
Home sweet home, they say, but what is home? If you’re one Canada’s 235,000 people experiencing homelessness, you might never know the answer to that question. If you’re one of Canada’s 1.5 million living in precarious housing, home is “inadequate, unsuitable and unaffordable,” according to a recent article in the Toronto Star. Physicians Danyaal Raza and Ritika Goel write, “First and foremost, housing must be viewed as a health and social justice issue.” Home is not just a roof over your head, they say. It’s a safe, secure and affordable roof critical to good health and well-being.
Here in Haliburton County, Places for People president and founder Fay Martin couldn’t agree more. With more and more talk about homelessness in our local media, and initiatives such as the 20,000 Homes Campaign launching this week – a campaign that aims to house 20,000 of Canada’s “most vulnerable” by July 1, 2018 – it’s time for housing to become a community conversation, says Martin.
To begin though, we need to shift our way of thinking.
“We are really confused,” Martin says. “We think that housing is on one hand a necessity of life but on the other hand it’s an investment, and you have a right to make money out of your investment, which is what Toronto is on steroids about, and Vancouver.”
Martin calls such cities “greed factories.”
In a country of such temperature extremes, there’s no doubt housing is a necessity. But it’s deeper than that, says Martin. In an ideal world, Martin (who has a PhD from the University of Bristol in Policy Studies, more than 40 years experience working with vulnerable populations, and a list of publications longer than this page) would like to see housing enter the realm of things like clean drinking water – a human right.
“I would like to see housing, and this is so incredibly radical it’s not going to happen, I would like to see housing as a right of citizenship. I think it’s there. Softly. But I’d like to see it taken seriously.”
The 20,000 Homes Campaign, for which Martin has volunteered, is a step in that direction, she says, a “first step in the snow.”
To reach the place where housing is a basic human right, she says, “Who knows what that would look like; we would have to attack the greed factory. It would entail a restructuring of the whole way we think about property, which is a pretty big shift.”
The county has added its name to the running tally on the campaign’s website: 33 communities, 351 volunteers, 2020 housed, 676 days left. Such numbers are reassuring to those working in social services everywhere. CEO of the Kawartha Lakes-Haliburton Housing Corporation Hope Lee presented an overview of housing available in Haliburton County during the training for nine local campaign volunteers on August 17. While the local goal is to house 24 people by the cut off date of July 1, 2018, Lee says she’d take a “wild guess” that those in need of immediate housing will total twice that number.
“This is our first count,” Lee says. “We’re going to learn things.”
Martin thinks we’re going to learn more about what’s known in her circles as “hidden homelessness” – an issue unique to rural areas for which initiatives such as 20,000 Homes may prove ill-equipped to address.
“Housing First, the approach 20,000 Homes is based upon, doesn’t translate well into rural communities and there will be some stories about that as we do this count,” she says. “Whether or not we admit it will be another issue.”
Martin provides a list of hidden homelessness examples: staying with family and friends ( e.g. couch surfing, concealed household), tied (e.g. trading services for housing, such as housekeeping or sex), substandard (e.g. major repairs needed, unsanitary, unaffordable), temporary (e.g. motels, car, mobile home, boat), squatting (e.g. factory, outbuilding, community centre), outdoors (e.g. bush camp, forest, cave) institutions (e.g. hospital, prison).
During her 20 years working with marginalized people in Haliburton County, Martin says she has seen examples of everything on the list.
Lee is also aware of these issues.
“Some people say there’s no homelessness here,” she says, “because it doesn’t look the same as in the city.” There are no people sleeping in the park, she says, lugging their belongings around in garbage bags or shopping carts.
The Housing First approach aims to house those who are most vulnerable, and house them as quickly as possible. Martin worries that when you don’t have the typical places to look for the homeless, such as shelters or soup kitchens, the count may not reflect the reality of Haliburton County, and could eventually translate into less funding from the government.
Homelessness looks different here, she says. It’s a middle-aged man whose bathroom falls through the floor into his living room, so he just closes off that part of his house and lives in the kitchen. It’s an elderly woman who lives in an uninsulated house with an oil tank too old to meet code, hauling fuel oil by the jerry can, who’d rather starve herself than go on welfare. It’s a leaky roof, mouldy walls, a septic system that needs to be replaced, a cottage that’s not winterized, a road not managed by the county.
“Something like 62 per cent of the county’s roads are privately owned, which means unplowed roads, inaccessible homes,” says Martin.
Home is not only a safe, secure, and affordable roof over your head, says Martin. In rural areas, it’s also accessible. Home is a place from where you can access grocery stores, hospitals, schools – a place where you can be “a contributing member of society,” she says, where you are not “impeded from working because of your home’s location, and/or the state of the road, and/or whether or not you’ve got a workable vehicle.”
Haliburton County, according to Martin, is in dire need of a revised definition of home and homelessness.
While a homeless count is a great first step in the snow, she says, once the surveys are completed and assessed, Martin wonders where we’ll put the 24 people who are deemed most vulnerable. The county’s rental availability is a third of the rest of Ontario. And what’s available isn’t necessarily affordable.
“We are house rich and housing poor,” says Martin. “Even modest housing is unaffordable given what most people are paid.” And that’s another conversation, she says, about low wages.
The numbers provided by the Kawartha Lakes-Haliburton Housing Corporation are testament to this dilemma. Currently, 224 households are waiting for an affordable housing unit in Haliburton, 201 in Minden, 93 in Wilberforce, 21 in Carnarvon. They will be waiting for three to five years.
There is hope, says Martin. There are more steps in the snow we can take as a community, as a society.
“We have to make a decision whether housing is a right or an investment. As long as we don’t differentiate between those two, we can’t think straight about it.”
In September, Martin will take yet another step on the path to helping us think straighter. Along with four other prominent researchers, she will commence a study for the Rural Ontario Institute, meeting with focus groups and interviewing individuals with “lived experience” of homelessness in rural areas.
She hopes to continue to raise awareness, by “Chinese water torture,” she says. Drip, drip, drip. Places for People. 20,000 Homes. ROI research.
“It’s going to be a solid piece of research,” she says, encouraged that the government is finally taking note of the unique situation in rural communities.
Finally, home sweet home may mean something for everyone.