BY ROLAND FLEMING
Natasha Carter, who has been smoking marijuana since she was 12 and cigarettes since she was 14, can finally say she is done with them. The former Kitchener resident is now 25, which means that these substances were a part of her life for more than a decade.
While fierce willpower and determination have played a part in her continuing abstinence from these substances, having her own space to live has been a big contributing factor. Carter also struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from a traumatic past, and has experienced homelessness on and off for about four years. She has been on her own since she was 15 and first experienced homelessness at the age of 21.
She has lived in shelters, in stairwells, and on too many couches to count. She has made homes in a truck trailer and even a tent in the forest. She has been sick, she’s been beaten and she has had dozens and dozens of stitches.
“I don’t know how I’m alive half the time. I’ve dodged a lot of bullets and I’ve ignored a lot of impulses when it came to taking my own life,” she said.
Despite this Carter sees a better future. She often dreams of running her own café one day, because she enjoys coming up with all kinds of unique concoctions in the kitchen. She has even considered culinary school.
She has also contemplated becoming a social worker, to be the kind of worker who would really help others move forward in life; the kind of person she so desperately needed but never seemed to find.
But Carter’s biggest passion, one of the only things that has remained constant in her life throughout the turmoil, is her music. Listening to her lyrics, it’s clear that a lack of intelligence is certainly not what has kept her down in life.
The musician has invested countless hours in developing herself as a rapper. She has written dozens of songs, and now even makes her own beats. She has performed countless times at open mics across the region and at times made some income through busking. She is currently working on finishing her first album that will be entirely made up of original songs and original beats, hoping sales will be a source of income.
But all of these dreams and possibilities hinge on her having stability, and without having a reliable place to live, stability just doesn’t seem possible.
Research shows overwhelmingly that affordable and supportive housing is necessary in moving our poor and marginalized citizens forward in life.
There is a lot of evidence from cities that funding affordable and supportive housing saves money in other areas such as health and police services. From 2009 to 2013 a research effort conducted in five major Canadian cities called At Home/Chez Soi that involved over 2,000 participants demonstrated that a housing first approach to homelessness was both a more economical and more effective approach. Yet there remains a significant lack of housing here in Waterloo Region. Carter discovered this when she first tried to apply for affordable housing.
“I can tell you that when I did live in the region and I applied for housing they told me it would be a six-year wait … unless I had a child,” said Carter.
According to a report on housing in Waterloo Region published in 2011, wait times like these were common. The report suggested there were a little over 10,000 affordable housing units in the region with a wait list of almost 3,000. Affordable housing is housing that is subsidized and as such can be rented out at below market value.
The report also said expected wait times for a single, non-senior person were between four and six years. The situation is now even worse, with wait times for single non-seniors being six years or longer. Even for families, the minimum wait time is three years.
“We should be getting more low-income housing for single individual people,” said Carter.
Carter, whose PTSD could qualify her for supportive housing for mental health, would experience long wait times for this kind of housing as well. Supportive housing is also subsidized to make it more affordable but comes with the added benefit of providing support to the specific needs of the residents. But for Carter, access to this kind of housing would have hinged on a proper diagnosis which is often difficult for those with mental illness to obtain.
Bruce Sweet, the reverend at Emmanuel United Church in Waterloo, and church member Karen Dixon have noticed the lack of help for those in situations similar to Carter’s.
“Supportive housing is hard to find in Kitchener-Waterloo,” said Sweet.
Sweet, Dixon and others at the church have been working alongside the greater community to repurpose a building on their property as a dry house for women.
“Women who are recovering from addictions, after they have finished treatment, frequently do not have a place to live,” said Dixon.
Emmanuel United offers a drop-in centre three afternoons a week, called the Bridgeport Café, for the homeless or marginally housed. Sweet and Dixon know first-hand the difficulty for many visitors in finding adequate housing.
“We had a couple guys here who were sleeping in tents, some people were in boarding houses … which usually turns out not to be any good because their stuff gets stolen all the time,” said Sweet, who has tried to help people find places to live.
“I took a few people around to look at some rooms that were for rent … there’s really not much out there … it’s also difficult when they have to have first and last month’s rent.”
The decision to turn the building into a dry house for women was made due to the fact that no such housing existed in the region. There were two dry houses for men but none for women.
Carter has lived in Waterloo Region for most of her life and although she has thought about and attempted to quit her addictions many times over the last few years, her struggle has been focused on mere survival most of the time.
“You cannot fix any ills that people have, mental illness or addiction, without some form of supportive housing, a roof over their head,” said Dixon.
Most of the places where Carter could afford to stay, or where people would let her stay temporarily, only made the challenge of quitting even more difficult, and were not ideal for someone struggling with PTSD.
Carter said spending time in shelters often causes more harm than good.
“You have all these people with all these problems in one place … what will it help you if you’re a drug addict and you go and stay with all these drug addicts”?
Another issue she said is others who don’t have addictions, such as the mentally ill, may meet drug addicts in the shelter and end up trying drugs for the first time.
“A lot of people who haven’t even struggled with drugs, they will actually accidentally do drugs, or feel pressured or depressed enough to try them,” Carter said, adding that police would come to the shelter sometimes 10 times a day.
For Carter and others whose mental illnesses make living with others difficult, the simple math of their situation works against them. Ontario Works currently gives a maximum monthly allowance of just over $700 a month. A report published on housing stability for Waterloo Region in 2016 stated that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $850 a month.
For Carter, her only other options were to apply for disability benefits, or leave the region to find somewhere more affordable. While the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) doesn’t offer much more than Ontario Works, it would have at least made having her own space possible. On ODSP she would receive approximately $1,100 a month in benefits.
But getting on ODSP is not a simple or quick process. And again, the mentally ill are often left behind when it comes to receiving support. For many, the very mental illness that would qualify them for receiving benefits, actually prevents them from completing the process of applying for ODSP, which involves being diagnosed, filling out paperwork, and waiting weeks or months to receive a reply. Even after receiving a reply, more information may be requested. Ultimately many will abandon the process before it is ever completed. This is precisely the reason why Carter has never been on ODSP.
Carter’s frustrations with trying to survive in the region led her to the faraway town of Pembroke, Ont. where she was able to afford a place of her own in which she had enough distance from negative influences to make her first steps toward recovery.
In a few short months of having her own place, she got the supports she needed established. She connected with a good social worker and a counsellor. Using that forward momentum and stability, she was able to quit smoking, and not long after marijuana.
Despite finally having a stable place to live, Carter wishes she could move back to K-W where she could pursue schooling, where there are many outlets for her to share her music.
Carter and others like her can only hope that more housing initiatives will be funded, that someday Waterloo Region will provide the spaces those with mental illnesses desperately need.
“There are all kinds of cities that have eliminated homelessness … this is within our realm of possibility, particularly in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. We’re a very rich area,” said Dixon.
Petitioning the government could help make that happen, but another way might be just making more people aware of the situation.
“I think if they did know about it, and there’s something they could do, then people would do it,” said Sweet.