Social Planning Council of Kingston & District
Community and Social Development for Kingston and Area
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Closing the Distance in Kingston
"A Room of One's Own"
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"Last weekend, O'Neil and his friend Mark Stone spent the days in parking lots, drinking to keep warm, he said. Both men look tired and unkempt, but they laugh easily and bond over their shared experiences. It's important to partner with someone when the weather gets cold, O'Neil said. 'You have to try to take care of each other,' he said. Having someone with you on the streets in the winter can mean the difference between life and death. Stone has died three times on the street. Twice last year and once already this year, Stone's heart stopped during a cold night. Each time, he was found and revived, he said, despite having ice crystals in his lungs." (The Kingston Whig-Standard, January 20, 2004)
On the evening of January 19, 2004, John Gerretsen, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Kingston MPP, city bureaucrats and several Kingston City Councillors hear this story first-hand, and the stories of many other poor and homeless people in Kingston. These politicians and city staff join community agency workers and homeless people for a bus tour of shelters, hospitals, hang-outs and sleeping places used by homeless people in Kingston.
This bus tour is organized by Kingston's Health and Housing Coalition to follow a meeting held earlier that same evening by the Kingston Closing the Distance Project. The Closing the Distance Project, known in Kingston as "A Room of One's Own" (ROOO), has arranged to meet with their local MPP and Municipal Affairs Minister, John Gerretsen. Over 50 people fill the meeting room of a downtown church while homeless people, tenants and landlords from the ROOO group speak honestly with their MPP, sharing harsh experiences of poverty and homelessness, naming key issues in the community, and presenting possible solutions to these problems.
Minister Gerretsen and the City Councillors are surprised by some of the issues raised at the meeting. They are also impressed by how tenants, homeless people and landlords are able to work together to articulate their concerns and present possible solutions in a constructive way.
Just over a year before, on December 5 2002, a group of community leaders from the health, housing, education and social sectors had come together for a community visioning meeting about the Kingston Closing the Distance Project. They realized that many different people in Kingston face the threat - or the reality - of homelessness. They decided that, in order to close the distance for homeless people in Kingston, it would be important to involve not only homeless people, but also landlords. From here A Room of One's Own began its journey to "close the distance".
Kingston: A Room of One's Own
In Kingston, the SEII project has worked on closing the distance between homeless people/tenants and landlords. Following a Community Visioning session in November 2002, the Kingston SEII leadership group decided that it needed to understand better the perspectives of both people who were homeless and landlords. Meetings were organized with both homeless people and with landlords to hear the fears and needs of both groups.
As a result of separate weekly meetings of "tenants" and homeless people, the Room of One's Own (ROOO) group of self-advocates was formed. ROOO members also met monthly with landlords, city officials, and service providers. At the monthly meetings, ROOO issues were brought forward for consideration and discussion in an attempt to find common ground that landlords and tenants could support. This led to several leading landlords in the Kingston area became actively engaged in the process, including the head of a major landlords' association in eastern Ontario.
Common ground between ROOO members and landlords was discovered in several areas, such as support for an increase in shelter allowances, a direct rent payment option to landlords (at the voluntary choice of tenants), and the need for a renter-landlord matching service, including community service agency supports to both tenants and landlords experiencing tension or conflict in a tenancy.
The landlords association in eastern Ontario invited ROOO members to their annual meeting in the fall of 2003. Landlord representatives also joined ROOO members to make joint presentations on shared positions to political representatives, including the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs in January 2004.
ROOO has established itself with the community and the City administration as a voice for people without homes in the community. There has been some impact in terms of new investment and improved services in the emergency shelter situation in Kingston. Community understanding of the issue of homelessness has also increased as a result of positive local media coverage of ROOO activities in Kingston.
In March 2004, seven of the ROOO members attended the Closing the Distance Provincial Conference in Toronto. They made a joint presentation on the Kingston Closing the Distance project with the head of the landlord's association from eastern Ontario.
A Room of One's Own has been integral in raising awareness about housing issues in their community through public education. Since the spring of 2004, ROOO has engaged directly with political decision-makers. In June 2004, ROOO members and landlord representatives planned and conducted a joint meeting of their federal, provincial and municipal political representatives to advance their policy proposals on housing and homelessness. The elected officials made a commitment to an annual "three-level" meeting with ROOO at that time and the next one is being planned for June 2005.
Further, one of the results of ROOO action was a City of Kingston sub-committee that established homelessness as a priority on the local social housing registry.
In February 2005, the Kingston SPC supported ROOO in calling an open community meeting to consider a proposal for highlighting the conditions that homeless people in Kingston are experiencing. More than 50 people joined the ROOO members in a lively discussion at the public library about the merits of promoting the design and building of small-scale shelters for homeless members of the community.
There was vigorous debate about whether building temporary, mobile shelters was letting the politicians "off the hook" or risked suggesting that a "shantytown" was adequate shelter for homeless community members. Others felt that some kind of symbolic action by the community in conjunction with ROOO members to construct housing would be a good way to draw media and public attention to the homelessness issue. ROOO members, themselves, expressed a wish to raise public awareness and to get political action, but they also were attracted to the idea of some kind of "direct action" like building reasonable temporary shelters so that people would not have to sleep on the street or in the crowded conditions of public shelters.
As spring 2005 approaches, the community and ROOO members continue to struggle with how to balance symbolic action for public awareness building with real immediate need in a project focused on building small-scale shelters.
In addition to the three-level government meeting and action on the Kingston social housing registry, ROOO has identified a number of priority action areas to work on including:
Increasing the Ontario Works Shelter Allowance
Promoting more transitional housing
Year-round funding for Kingston's overflow emergency shelter program
Redirecting properties confiscated for tax arrears to non-profit housing
Community Vision (December 2002)
(In December 2002, about fifteen community leaders in Kingston came together to spend a day shaping a direction for the Kingston Closing the Distance Project. Homelessness was their focus. The following summarizes their discussion as captured in several wall-size graphic murals produced during the day.)
We know the cycle of distancing that occurs if you have no place to call home. Money, jobs, health, relationships are all impacted dramatically if there is no place that you can call your own. Even the most basic of units of housing, a room, can make a huge difference in beginning to close the gaps that exist in the lives of people who have become homeless, no matter what the reason.
Kingston is a city that finds many people on the edge of homelessness. There are people who are exiting one of the many correctional facilities; youth who have left home; or middle aged men separated from family and out of work; people battling mental illness who have been discharged from the psychiatric hospital; women who escape violent relationships, with or without children; older women who survive the death of a spouse. Whatever the reason, having no place can exacerbate an already difficult situation.
Leaving Prison - The first 60 days
People who have left correctional facilities after finishing the terms of their sentence, and those who work with them have learned that the first 60 days out are critical. If you can't find and secure a place to live, the likelihood of things not working is high, frequently leading to re-offence.
When people are leaving prison, they have little or no money; they either have no social network, or the one they have may not be an option when trying to have a new start and stay away from further criminal activity. There are even laws that prohibit them from associating with the people they have in their network.
Ex-offenders have the struggle of finding work with a criminal record. There is a stigma associated with being "a criminal". There is much fear in the public, "what will these people do to me?" It is difficult to find a place to live with this reputation following them. Few people are willing to welcome a person who carries a stereotype that inspires fear for one's safety.
Youth on the Streets
For a variety of reasons there are young people who leave home. Many end up on the streets because it is perceived to be a safer place than where they are coming from; for others there is the allure of freedom from restrictions; others have been kicked out after growing family conflicts. Once they leave home it is extremely difficult to stay in school.
On the streets they too often inspire fear in the public. Life on the streets quickly affects appearances. It is difficult to have clean clothes. No showers means strong odour. Add to this that these young people often have a low sense of self; they assume they are not trusted; that they do not belong; they appear to be anti-social and project an image that suggests, "I'll prove that I really am unacceptable".
Underneath it all they are deeply vulnerable. Many of them are still legally children, not yet recognized as adults; they are still maturing physically, emotionally, and intellectually. They have not yet acquired the experience that brings wisdom. They are most often disconnected from the guidance of adults who care about them, adults they can trust. And all of this leads them to be preyed upon by those adults who drive the sex and drug trade. When you need a warm shower, clean clothes, food, you'll do whatever it takes to get them.
Not having a safe place to stay fuels a cycle that leads to isolation.
Losing a Job in Midlife
Losing a job is always a source of stress. But as we get older the vulnerability of the experience increases. Depending on the nature of our work experience we are particularly at risk if our skills are not readily transferable. We lose the sense of pride that comes from work, and in its place there is shame.
Most people will live as long as they can, using the financial resources that they have spent years socking away as a nest egg for those retirement years. When the nest egg is dried up, shame and fear multiply, and all of this makes it more difficult to find work.
Criteria for employment programs such as Ontario Works create a dilemma for those who do whatever they can to find work including taking on part time jobs, often bottom level low paying jobs, only to find that they are penalized by their efforts. It appears as though they will never be able rise up out of the hole that results from losing their job.
When people experience such deep losses, and internalize a lack of self worth, they will project that in their appearance, by how they carry themselves, how they dress, how they talk, in the tone of their voice.
Deeply embedded in the psyche of our culture is the fear of these losses. So much so that we will look away from those who are going through it because it is too painful for us to see. Social connections, so essential to finding work, become harder to create ? and the cycle continues.
Struggling with Mental Health Issues
Sometimes battles with mental illness cause job loss and homelessness, sometimes it is the result.
People who are battling mental illness are another source of fear for the rest of society. The fear that this could be our experience is overwhelming so we choose to make people into "other" in order that we can distance ourselves from our fears. We see the behaviour of these people as a reason to isolate rather than understand. It justifies in our minds why these people were traditionally locked up.
When we are faced with people who are not ruled by social conventions, people who invade our space, who smell because of the medications they take, or who have not showered or cleaned their clothes, we don't know what to do, and we don't know what they will do. They are unpredictable and rather than experience the vulnerability that comes with this uncertainty, we push people away, avoid them, and stay at a distance.
Stories in our media further entrench the distance by embedding frightening images and thoughts in our minds, all of which just stalls any efforts to bridge the gap, deepen understanding, or address the issues.
It is true that we used to place people in institutions, now we just work hard to put them out of our minds. People struggling with mental health issues simply fall through the cracks between living in institutions, and living in our communities.
Unique Vulnerabilities of Women
Many women are catapulted into homelessness and poverty as a result of a violent relationship with a spouse or partner. They are in deep need of a secure place, safe from the hounding of the man that has already harmed them. It is not simply a room that is required; the room must be connected to relationships that can protect.
If they have children the need and the complexity of the situation are multiplied. They not only need security for themselves, they need to protect the children from harm, and abduction.
Custody issues further complicate. To maintain custody they must find a place to live that can be seen as a good place for children to grow up. If a woman has been dependent upon the income of a man for food, clothing, housing, and has had to leave all of this, she is not able to replace all that she had.
Women with children face the added problem of finding work and caring for children. If they seek out employment they risk losing financial assistance, complete with health care benefits for prescriptions, and other unexpected costs. They are faced with the need for childcare that is affordable and subsidized.
They face the difficulty of accessing public transportation systems with young children; the cost in money and time; the availability of housing on routes that make it possible to go to work, school, shopping.
Most women are likely to live longer than men and as such often outlive their husbands, facing dramatic losses, personally, emotionally, financially, and practically.
As they age they face health issues that require supports for monitoring and care. They require places that are physically accessible with modifications that can maximize the experience of independence. And they require emotional support to deal with losses and loneliness.
Common Ground for All Who Seek a Room of One's Own
All of the people that we have identified share a number of things in common as they hunt for a place to live, a room, a safe place off the streets.
All experience loss; loss of home; loss of income; loss of possessions; loss of relationships, loss of pride.
All find themselves dealing with public views that are somewhere on a continuum between simply being uncomfortable, unfamiliar with what to do, how to act; all the way to outright fear for their lives, fear that they are in danger. All experience varying levels of rejection at the hands of strangers. None of this inspires or promotes citizenship, skill development, relationship building.
Having no place, no address, has dramatic financial implications. You have no address for your resume or job application; you become viewed as unstable, unreliable. If you can't find work, you can't develop or build upon a work history, you become even less eligible for future employment. You have no phone number where you can be reached for interviews. You are not eligible for Ontario Works and other financial assistance programs.
If you have no room of your own, you have no secure place for your material possessions. Shelters and the streets are places where theft is expected. If you lose your identification and have no address you are at great risk. No identification means no health card, no health card means no doctor services, no treatment for medical or mental health issues that arise.
If you have no place to go to, to get off the streets, away from the shelters, you are not safe. You are at risk of physical and sexual assault.
Most people who are homeless, or on the edge of homelessness, have already experienced their social network of relationships diminishing. Ending up homeless only furthers the weakening of the networks. The networks that do get formed while people are homeless are often not productive because people lack the resources to get out of the situations they find themselves in.
All need even the most basic of places, a room that they can call their own, if they are to move closer to a life of full citizenship. Without it, the costs are too high for all of us.