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Homelessness growing in York Region

March 1, 2016

York Region homelessness growing

Newmarket Era

As Tom Johnson gathered together his belongings at Newmarket’s Inn From the Cold before facing another day wandering the streets, he talked about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child that has left him emotionally broken and led to his homelessness.

“I have gone through, physically, mentally, pure living hell and to cope, when nobody’s around, I crack open a bottle of wine and I’ll sit somewhere and I’ll drink it,” he said.

“I don’t have a drinking problem, but when you get down, you sit and you start thinking, you want to get a bottle of wine just to ease the pain.”

Johnson, not his real name, said he was sexually abused by a family member beginning from about the age of 12.

Johnson, who has a disability, said his already troubled life took a turn for the worse when his mother died about seven years ago and he found himself homeless.

The 49-year-old has spent the last several years in a cycle of homelessness or near-homelessness, renting apartments or rooms for short periods, couch surfing, staying in homeless shelters or pitching a tent.

“I’ve been homeless now for quite some time. I don’t even remember when there has ever been stability in my life,” he said.

He receives a government disability cheque of about $1,200 a month, which he has spent on rent for accommodation that never turns out to be long-term, and on living expenses, such as food and clothing.

He is now saving much of his monthly benefit to try to secure more permanent housing and bring stability into his life.

Johnson sits at a table at the homeless shelter with two young men who say circumstances in their lives, including lack of education, dismal job prospects, financial hardship and family strife, have left them homeless, too.

“For an outsider looking in, it’s very difficult. A lot of people on the outside see it as hard and sad. For me, it’s just life,” said the 20-year-old man, who has been homeless off and on since the age of 16.

He is hoping to get his life back on track if he can save enough money to get into a college program.

There are many reasons why people end up homeless, according to officials with York Region shelters, who say their facilities have been busy this winter, despite the mild weather.

“Homelessness is very complicated. A lot of bad things have to happen to you in your life to become homeless,” said Inn From the Cold executive director Tom Vegh, adding economic , mental health and/or substance abuse problems are generally at the core of people’s challenges.

For five months during the winter, Inn From the Cold offers guests a mat on the floor, nutritious food and others services, such as laundry, between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. seven days a week.

The shelter has seen its numbers climb this year.

“Last year, which was a particularly severe winter, a brutal winter, last year (between mid-November and the end of January), we had 1,049 shelter stays. That represented 134 unique guests — some people stayed here multiple times — and  that’s a huge number of homeless in the area,” Vegh said.

“This year, with the very, very mild winter, we actually have seen a slight increase for the same period. There has been an increase of 20 stays, so 1,069, which surprised us. We thought that number would go way down, and that represented about 160 unique individuals.”

As the region’s population increases, homelessness is growing, Vegh said.

Because the homeless are among the most vulnerable members of society, issues such as economic and employment forces and lack of affordable housing hit them first and hardest, he added.

Inn From the Cold and other agencies are hoping to establish a social services hub to address issues such as homelessness, Vegh said.

Data gathered from the United Way of Toronto and York Region’s first-ever count of the homeless over a 24-hour period last month, which is expected to be released this spring, will help agencies better plan programs and services, he said.

“We don’t think we will eliminate homelessness — we’re not naïve to think that — but we can certainly bring the numbers way down and, really, our goal should be to prevent homelessness,” Vegh said.

While the Richmond Hill Food Bank doesn’t serve many clients who are homeless, it is seeing an increase in demand this year, manager Brenda Ewart said.

“We are seeing our numbers, even since January, have started to increase because we do have some Syrian refugees come in and they do have large families. I think we’re going to see an increase over the next little bit with that,” she said.

Families struggling to make ends meet after paying high child care costs are also turning to the food bank, Ewart said.

The food bank served about 15,000 clients last year, perhaps slightly higher than in 2014, but she expects to see that number climb this year.

At Blue Door, which operates Leeder Place family shelter, Porter Place men’s shelter and a youth shelter, the organization had people staying at its facilities 435 more nights during the last quarter of 2015 than it did during the same time in 2014.

People are staying for longer periods, including larger families who can’t find affordable housing and youths who were not even able to spend time with their families over the holidays because their families were experiencing unemployment, executive director Radha Bhardwaj said.

While Blue Doors hasn’t done any research to delve into the reasons behind the trend, she called the increase in demand upsetting.

“It is troubling. It’s hard, especially when you see youth who are not actually going home, even over the holidays because it is a time when families get together and they celebrate each other and even if there are difficulties and challenges, people look past that or overcome that even for a short time,” Bhardwaj said.

“It’s also really hard to see a lot of little children at the family shelter. In November, we had upwards of 20 children at Leeder Place. It’s hard that so many young people are homeless and are having such a hard start in life.”

While Bhardwaj said she is proud Blue Door is there to meet the needs of people needing shelter, she said it’s disturbing the facilities are necessary in relatively affluent York Region, where homelessness is often hidden.

“I think homelessness is a problem in York Region. I think homelessness has been a problem for many years,” she said.

“I think it’s been very invisible in York Region because we don’t have the spaces for people to be openly homeless.”

It is time to come up with real solutions for homelessness in the region, Bhardwaj said.

“There isn’t a lot of light shone on it and sometimes it’s easy for all of us to get really comfortable and think it isn’t an issue in our region and, in fact, it is,” she said.