A House in the Country
Network, Spring/Summer 2005
Homelessness is not just a problem in big cities. In fact, studies have shown that a similar percentage of the population in rural communities experience homelessness as in major urban centres, according to Les Voakes, executive director of Town Youth Participation Strategies (TYPS) in Smith Falls, Ontario.
Rural and urban homelessness are connected, says Voakes, by the fact that over half of the people who end up homeless in big cities came there from a small town or rural community. But for those in rural areas who find themselves without a place to call home, there are many unique challenges.
In the Lanark County region of eastern Ontario, where Smith Falls, Carleton Place, Perth, and many smaller communities are located, there is ‘a profound lack of resources at all levels,’ says Voakes. ‘Almost zero emergency housing or transitional housing or long-term accommodations.’ Whatever limited services are available are spread out across a vast geography. ‘Between Ottawa and Kingston, there is virtually nothing in the way of supports for homeless people.’
Surviving as a homeless person can mean having to connect with a variety of services. In rural areas, each of these services may be located in a different community, with limited or no public transportation between them. ‘The food bank is 18 kilometres one way,’ says Voakes. Poor transportation, combined with lack of services, means that ‘just getting to the line-up to be put on the waiting list for the service’ is a challenge in rural areas.
Voakes describes a common scenario where a young person who is homeless may have appointments with the welfare office in one town, a probation officer in another, and mental health services in a third. The youth is unlikely to have their own car, and there’s not even Greyhound service between towns, much less public transport.
Young people in Lanark County who had experienced homelessness came together with service providers to study the issue of youth homelessness. In 2003 they produced a participatory action research report called ‘Transitions.’ Young researchers interviewed 99 peers about their experiences, finding that 63 percent of them were 15 years old when they were first homeless, 39 percent of them were unemployed, and almost half (46 percent) of them had seriously contemplated suicide.
‘Transitions’ got a lot of attention, says Voakes, who helped lead the project. Municipal officials were particularly affected. Finding out that there were young people in their communities living in abandoned cars ‘hit a couple of them pretty hard,’ he says. In response, they became ‘champions’ of the youths’ proposal to develop transitional housing. The Transitions Committee is currently seeking funding to turn the youths’ vision into reality.
Valerie Douglas, housing coordinator for the Muskoka-Parry Sound Community Mental Health Service, agrees that finding a place to call home poses a particular challenge in rural areas. People seek shelter in abandoned cottages or trailers, live in tents, or sleep in cars, and the issue of homelessness often remains ‘hidden’ from public view.
As in many rural areas, rental costs in Muskoka-Parry Sound are high, due to the short supply of available apartments. Many of the rental units in the region don’t include the cost of heating, according to Douglas, which makes it appear at first glance that the rent is lower than the provincial average.
Funding for new supportive and low-income housing is a major challenge in Muskoka-Parry Sound. Douglas has sought out funding from federal and provincial sources to provide rent supplements and provide new units, but the bureaucracy involved is a huge, complicated barrier.
The agency’s supportive housing program currently offers 36 safe and affordable supportive housing rental units for individuals with serious mental illness who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. Thirty of these are provided with rent supplements, and the other six units are in an agency-owned property. The agency has adopted a recovery model of supportive housing – whenever possible, tenants sign rental agreements with landlords and are responsible for paying their own rent. The agency subsidizes the tenant, so that they can live in market-rent units they choose.
Tenants are offered individualized, flexible crisis and community supports from the agency, also following the recovery model. Douglas says that the region ‘doesn’t have enough funding for other key services, such as employment support, transportation, recreation.’ One source of support affiliated with the agency is the Council of Consumer/Survivor and Family Initiatives of Muskoka-Parry Sound, a peer-support organization that runs groups and opportunities for social connections.
‘We’re creative in our own environment,’ says Douglas. As the sole housing worker, her job involves a great deal of multitasking – coordinating between landlords and tenants, teaching landlords about the Tenant Protection Act. She ‘keeps good relationships with the landlords,’ an especially important task in a small town where people know each other well. ‘And if they don’t know you,’ adds Douglas, ‘they know about you!’
The Muskoka-Parry Sound Community Mental Health Service has also provided a lot of education to the town council in Bracebridge. Elected officials often share some of the popular misconceptions about low-income and supportive housing, says Douglas. Having a member of the town council on a housing advisory committee has helped the agency overcome some of the resistance to the issue of housing and the discrimination associated with mental illness.
‘Homeless people in rural areas are just as homeless as in the city,’ says Voakes. In Muskoka-Parry Sound, as in Lanark County and elsewhere in rural and small-town Ontario, getting champions on board and being creative are necessary strategies to help address the reality of homelessness.
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