BY RYAN BOWMAN
This is the second of a five-part series examining the causes and consequences of homelessness in Waterloo Region.
It’s a mild but rainy afternoon in late October. As precipitation patters against the windows of ROOF, a shelter and resource centre for homeless and at-risk youth in downtown Kitchener, Rebecca speaks of her life on the streets as casually as if she’s discussing the weather.
Rebecca, who wishes to keep her last name confidential, is 21. She dropped out of high school and left her mother’s Waterloo home at the age of 17, spending her nights in shelters, stairwells and “crack houses” ever since. She is in the midst of battling an addiction to crystal meth, a drug which she first started using at the age of 18.
On the day we meet, Rebecca is 22 days clean. She is set to move into an apartment provided by Addiction Supportive Housing in a couple of days. Her original move-in date of Sept. 1 was postponed because of administrative delays, but she is optimistic about the prospects of having her own place and “starting over.”
As Rebecca speaks of her years on the streets – in past tense – she says the worst part was always the social stigma attached to her homelessness.
“I would be walking down the street and looking like a bag of crap. I knew everyone was looking down on me and that feeling sucked, because there’s a real person inside. What you see is not always what you get.”
Sandra Dietrich-Bell is the executive director at Reaching Our Outdoor Friends (ROOF). Having worked with countless marginalized youth over the years, she has seen the effects of the stereotypes time and time again. Shaking her head, she recalls a secret game she’d play with one of the regular youth several years ago.
“He’d walk into ROOF and he would just say a number. No one knew what he meant except me. And what it was, was the number of times that people crossed the street when he walking towards them.
“This kid was just a big teddy bear kind of a guy, but people have the idea that all homeless people are dangerous and need to be avoided. When people clutch their children and pull them closer or they squeeze their purse a little tighter against their body as they’re walking by, it may be an unconscious action, but to the person who’s living on the street, they see it and it’s hurtful.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” Dietrich-Bell says. “When it’s hurtful, or when it stops being hurtful because it’s just so commonplace.”
Mike, who has been homeless for about three years, says he experiences covert discrimination on a daily basis.
“You get a lot of looks, but what am I going to do about it?” he says. “Every time someone looks at me sideways, I’m gonna challenge them or stand at the corner and yell at everybody? There’s no point to that. It’s not going to change my situation.”
Mike, 53, says the discrimination doesn’t come only from strangers.
“Some of my friends treat me totally different now than they would have back when I was working,” he says. “And what little family I have in this area made it clear that as long as I was homeless, don’t come around. We used to get together for holidays but they made it clear that if I’m not working I’m not welcome.”
And while society may discriminate, Lynn Macaulay, housing services co-ordinator at Lutherwood, says homelessness itself does not.
“The commonality is that there isn’t any commonality. The only generalization is that they don’t have reasonable incomes.”
Dietrich-Bell says people can wind up homeless for a multitude of reasons, but another generalization she has noticed – particularly among youth – is a toxic home environment.
“We have youth who have left home because they’ve been sexually assaulted for years by their father or by their stepfather, and we have youth who have left because their father uses drugs and got them using.
“But we’ve also had a youth who was ex-communicated by his family due to religious beliefs. His family was very wealthy but they put him out because he dared to question the way they were living and he was homeless for two years as a result. He managed to get back on his feet, but he got into things he never saw himself ever getting into, because there was no recourse. When your family and your extended community ex-communicates you, you’ve got nothing.”
Rebecca says in her experience, the biggest misconception the general public has about homelessness is that people choose it.
“It’s not a choice,” Rebecca says. “Yes, I made the choice to not follow my mom’s rules and move out and that’s brought me to where I am now. But I didn’t choose this.”
Dana Frigon is a volunteer at Mary’s Place, a 60-bed emergency shelter for women, transgendered people and families who are homeless in Kitchener-Waterloo. Less than 10 years ago, her situation was remarkably similar to Rebecca’s – she was homeless and battling a cocaine addiction.
Frigon says homelessness is not something people actively seek, but a result of unfortunate circumstances.
“When you see the person talking to themself, wrapped up in a blanket, lying on one of those gigantic vents with the hot air coming out in the middle of winter, that’s not a choice,” she says. “That wouldn’t be anybody’s choice.”
According to Macaulay, homelessness is sometimes the best solution to a bad situation.
“I would find it really hard to think people would choose to be homeless because it’s a very hard lifestyle,” she says. “What I absolutely do acknowledge is that for some people, homelessness is at some points a better option than some of the other options they have.”
Mike, who admits alcohol played a factor in him losing his job about three years ago, says he could be doing more to find a job but that living on the streets is never a lifestyle he wanted for himself.
“Maybe I’m not doing as much as I can to get a job or co-operating enough with OW (Ontario Works) to possibly get more money, but I never thought I’d end up homeless. Overall I don’t think homelessness has ever been a choice for people.”
Mike says another stereotype he’s experienced is that all homeless people are lazy and don’t want to work.
“I’m more than willing to work and would absolutely love to have any sort of job,” he says, adding that he occasionally collects cans and bottles when he’s desperate for money, but has never panhandled. “I’d happily take minimum wage right now to get started.”
Macaulay says one of the most common misconceptions about the homeless population is that they are all addicted to drugs and/or alcohol and have mental illnesses. While she acknowledges a correlation higher than that of the general public, she says it is difficult to determine whether the addiction or mental illness is a cause of homelessness, or a result of it.
“What I have seen in my experience is that living in chronic poverty and homelessness grinds on people, so levels of depression and anxiety increase for a lot of people,” she says. “Whether they had that first and that was a contributing factor to their homelessness or whether that’s an effect of trying to live a lifestyle that’s not meeting your basic needs, it’s really hard to know.
“What we do know is that there are a lot of people with substance use issues and mental health issues who aren’t poor.
“People who have higher levels of income exhibit the same types of behaviours, but because they have more privacy in their own homes, it doesn’t come to the attention of other people in the same way it does if you’re poor.”
Frigon, who used to frequent the shelter at which she now volunteers, acknowledges there are some impoverished people who abuse the social programs in place to support them – a cycle which contributes to prolonged or chronic homelessness.
“Some people get their welfare cheque and spend it on drugs,” she says. “You can see that with the women who have scabs all over themselves.”
But just because people are afflicted by addiction, Frigon says, it doesn’t mean they deserve their circumstances.
“Addiction takes over everything,” says Frigon, whose cocaine addiction led to a suicide attempt when she was in her early 20s. “Thought process, will, conscience, everything. That’s what drugs and alcohol do.”
Worst of all, perhaps, is not the judgment that homeless people experience at the hands of individuals but the institutional discrimination which seeps through the cracks of flawed social policy.
According to the Homelessness and Housing Umbrella Group (HHUG), an organization consisting of individuals and agencies committed to preventing and reducing homelessness in Waterloo Region, 38 per cent of people who are not stably housed have unmet health-care needs, compared to 12 per cent of the general population.
This lack of basic health care, Frigon says, can lead to bigger problems.
“If you don’t have the proper medical care, something small can turn into something huge. Even a hangnail could lead to an incredibly horrifying infection.”
Frigon, 27, is in her final year of social development studies at the University of Waterloo. She estimates about 40 per cent of street people are HIV positive, many of whom are undiagnosed and unmedicated.
“Most homeless people don’t even have a health card,” she says. “You see them walk into a hospital and they get turned away. They could be in there screaming on the floor and they don’t even deal with them. It’s backwards.”
According to Cathie Savage, co-ordinator of the Out of the Cold shelter program in Waterloo, there were at least 23 deaths among the homeless population in 2011 – a total she says is two to three times the annual average.
“Last year was particularly hard on the homeless population,” she says.
Mike says he can still remember the sense of fear and discomfort he felt whenever he heard about the latest casualty.
“For a while last year, it seemed every time you turned around they were putting up another notice at the soup kitchen for a memorial for this person or that person,” he says. “It was scary.”
Macaulay says the first step to squashing the social stigma attached to homelessness is for people to look beyond the stereotypes.
“If you don’t see the person first, and you only see their circumstance, it’s going to alter the way you interact with them and the way you treat them,” she says. “If you see them as the person first, the circumstance is something you can work together to fix.”
Next week, experience a day in the life of a homeless person in Waterloo Region.