March 29, 2023

By Kaitlyn Mullin / Spoke News

Warm. Comfortable. Safe. Those are all words used to describe the feeling of climbing under the covers of our bed after a long day, a feeling that is often taken for granted. For the thousands of people who are homelessness in Waterloo Region, their reality of finally having a chance to rest only leaves them with feelings of vulnerability, insecurity and fear.

Facing adversity, the homeless are forced to either prevail or surrender to a lifestyle surrounded by nothing but cold concrete. 

Dr. Stephen Hwang, director of the Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto, describes the cause of homelessness as a combination of a person’s vulnerabilities and societal forces. The weight of these pressures drives a person to find a cognitive and behavioural release to manage their stress.

“People who are homeless, like everyone else, tend to make the best of the difficult situations they find themselves in, but the strategies they use to cope are highly varied,” said Hwang. “Some work hard to find a way out by tapping into their own skills and their social networks, others lose hope and become passive, and some use alcohol and drugs to escape the pain they’re experiencing.”

Kevin Morton, a Cambridge resident, found himself homeless three years ago during what he describes as the worst moments in his life.

“I lost my job, my girlfriend, the place I was living, my car and my licence. All at once, everything in my life fell apart,” said Morton.

Struggling to find stability, Morton turned to drugs to cope with the challenges of his everyday life.

“You never know where you are going to get the things you need,” said Morton. “You have to figure everything out for yourself. It’s stressful.”

Morton also has a son who he sees every second weekend. He firmly grasps at the happy memories he shares with his son to help make each day a little easier.

“I don’t even know how I do this,” said Morton. “I get to see my son every second weekend, so that makes me push through things.”

Morton also said that he has fallen victim to the cycle of homelessness. Regardless of the shield he has built with his coping mechanisms, Morton describes homelessness and his situation as an “impossible hole to dig yourself out of.”

After spending time in jail, he eventually was released only to find himself losing control of stability once again.

“The good thing about going to jail was that I was off the streets and I got clean. But when I got out, I just couldn’t get into the rhythm of everyday living like before,” said Morton. “You get kicked out of jail, and you don’t really have anything to get you back on your feet.”

According to world-leading homelessness researcher Hwang, getting out of homelessness is the greatest obstacle for those who are struggling.

“The longer a person is homeless, the harder it is for them to get out of homelessness,” said Hwang. “Getting out of homelessness almost always requires a significant change of some type, e.g. a rent supplement and/or subsidized housing, and an active case manager.”

Unfortunately, Morton’s criminal record and chronic substance abuse caused him to be kicked out of the shelter where he slept. As a result, Morton is now forced to get as much sleep as he can on the bleachers of a park, something he quickly learned he preferred.

“For someone who used to abuse drugs, I think it’s better for me to sleep outside anyway because I find that if I stay at a shelter, I am taking a step backwards,” he said.

He is not alone. Sleeping outside and avoiding shelters is how others cope with the reality of homelessness as well. A man who goes by the street name “Irish” tries his hardest to avoid shelters at all cost, instead sleeping in homeless camps in the forests.

“I have no choice (but) to sleep out here. When I go to the shelters all my things get stolen,” Irish said. “I would rather sleep in these camps than have to go to places like that.”

Tented communities in Canada have been a growing trend among the homeless, where those living on the streets can share emotional support, supplies and safety with one another.

Ryan Coles, a Cambridge Youtube documenter, has made more than 10 video documentaries about the homeless camps in the region.

Throughout his exploration into the homeless camps he discovered natural landscapes littered with garbage, abandoned belongs and often times used needles.

“One day I randomly decided to investigate the camps and find out what I could, there was a lot to be learned. I think everyone had seen the camps as I did but were not aware of how bad the situation was,” said Coles. “ No one had looked closely at what was left behind at these camps that told a frightening story of addiction, prostitution and homelessness.”

Although not ideal, homeless camps have been working as a way for those who are struggling to feel a sense of community and love.

In Winnipeg, as reported by CBC News, an influx of homeless camps has been appearing throughout the city, with many stating that it is where they prefer to stay. Some prefer to camp as they were kicked out of shelters due to drug abuse, while others just prefer to be outside.

An abandoned homeless camp in Cambridge, Ont. (Facebook: Working Towards a Cleaner Cambridge)

Christy Loudon, a co-ordinator with the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ’s Community Homeless Assistance Team, told CBC News, “People prefer to be outside, they want to be able to have freedom. And it’s a community. It’s a community of people who are facing the same issues and they are coming together.”

For most Canadians, paycheques from an employer are how they receive income, but for those who are homeless, they often rely on government assistance.

“The most common sources of income are government transfers (Ontario Disability Support Program Ontario Works, and Old Age Pension), followed by employment,” said Hwang.

However, for many, the only way they can afford their basic needs are through begging for money at major intersections.

Irish, who receives only $350 monthly from Ontario Works, finds that halfway through the month he begins to struggle and has to beg for money. Irish believes there is a growing stigma around homelessness and begging often leads him nowhere.

“They think that everyone who is holding a sign is doing it for drugs and that is not the case,” said Irish.

Morton also described the stigma around homelessness and how people treat him like an outcast and fail to see that he is just trying to cope with his harsh reality.

“They need to be more understanding. You don’t know my situation. You don’t know what I have been through,” he said. “We need someone we can talk to. We need someone to listen.”

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