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Scarcity of shelter space is an issue

Cecilia Nasmith

By Cecilia Nasmith, Northumberland Today


In many forms, homelessness exists in Northumberland. This three-part story will explore several aspects. Today's instalment offers a look at how life's sudden turns can leave someone vulnerable and in need of emergency shelter.

Youth homelessness figures provided by Northumberland United Way say 60% stay in shelters, 25% couch-surf and 15% are on the street.

Meet Sam, who has done all three.

David Sheffield, community outreach worker with Green Wood Coalition, recently brought Sam in for an interview — a 24-year-old man dressed in as many layers as he could scrounge though without gloves, clutching a small red gym bag that contained his belongings.

Originally from Peterborough, Sam (not his real name) moved to Northumberland County last March to try to reunite with his mother. They'd had a difficult relationship, but she'd just had surgery for a brain tumour and he hoped things could be patched up.

Not only did they fail to establish any real closeness, he said, she lives in a seniors building, so there's no hope of finding housing with her.

Sam stuck around, hoping to build a fresh start for himself. He got a job and found a place, and all seemed well. Then there were layoffs at his place of work, and he found himself at Transition House in Cobourg.

He managed to find a job and another place, but he lost the job and lost the place and had to return to Transition House.

A friend asked him to share the rent on a place, which seemed a good solution. But the friend had issues of his own and lost the place after a couple of months.

This time Sam didn't return to Transition House. They had no vacancies, so he lived on the street.

"It's been struggle after struggle after struggle," Sam said.

Sheffield explained that Transition House is one of very few shelters in Ontario that accommodates families, along with single men and single women. It's a unique model, but it requires reserving some bedrooms for family use. So some members of the county's affordable-housing committee reject the premise that more emergency shelter is needed because Transition House is almost never full. At the same time, Sheffield said, single people often can't get in because there isn't space.

Even when Sam was able to stay at Transition House, that was not without problems.

Though Transition House requires a signed confidentiality agreement of anyone who stays there, Sam was more than willing to discuss his experiences because he understands he is permanently red-flagged — banned from the premises.

Executive director Diane Keast of Transition House would not discuss Sam's specific situation because of confidentiality considerations. But she reiterated that rules must be enforced because of the chance that children might be on the premises.

"If a person comes back and they have been drinking, we cannot allow them back in the house, drinking or using, because we take in family situations with children," Keast said.

"If a person shows any aggression, they will be asked to leave. Aggression is not tolerated, again because we have children in the house. Those would be reasons why somebody might be red-flagged."

How permanent the ban is depends on what has occurred, she said — how many occurrences there have been and how severe.

"We just don't red-flag individuals unless there has been ongoing issues. There has to have been ongoing and severe issues," Keast said.

"Individuals are given opportunities to reverse the situation — they can talk to staff.

"Individuals just aren't asked to leave for the sake of leaving. We are a shelter, and do want to assist individuals to get back on their feet. But because we service so many different individuals in different age brackets, we have to be very strict, and there has to be rules and regulations in place.

"Therefore, if individuals find it difficult to stay here for whatever the reasons are, and they show aggression or come back after drinking, those have to be in place because of those age brackets we service.

"That is very difficult. But when we ask individuals to leave, we do give them options where they can go."

Typically, they are sent to the police station to see if they can get a motel voucher and invited to come back when they have resolved the issues that led to whatever unacceptable behaviour caused the problem.

Sam denies having been in a substance-abuse situation or being unduly disruptive, though he did chafe at some of the rules (such as the curfew) and found staff unwilling to step in when he felt it appropriate — like the time one of the men came back "drugged out of his mind."

When Sam complained, he said, "Staff got mad and told me, 'Let us do our job.'"

A debate over the matter with the staffer became an argument. Voices were raised. The staffer declared Sam out of control and kicked him out with a red-flagging.

He fought the red-flagging, even went to the Cobourg Police for help. One officer approached Transition House and got the restriction removed — and even got them to open up one of the family rooms for a couple of days.

"No less than two days later, I'm kicked out again," Sam related.

It was an argument with another man staying at Transition House that provoked this move. Voices were raised, the other man shoved Sam, but Sam was the one who was kicked out.

He tried to get the police involved, but their inspection of the security cameras showed that the incident probably happened in a blind spot and they could not help.

The police tried to advocate with Transition House on Sam's behalf once more, but to no avail. He was red-flagged again at the only homeless shelter in Cobourg — the only one, in fact, closer than Oshawa, Peterborough and Lindsay.

"How's a man from Northumberland County supposed to go to Lindsay and still build a life in Northumberland County? I am pretty much forced to move out of this community, or stay here and live how I'm living. They don't leave me much of an option," Sam said.

The Peterborough shelter is located in what was once his home town, but Sam said he'd left what he termed "not a good life" behind last year to get a fresh start in Northumberland. And the shelter there is not safe, he added. There are 30 to 50 guys in a single room, with lots of drugs and lots of assaults.

"It would be like putting a lamb in a cave full of wolves. Nothing good can come out of it."

Sam understands that Transition House must have rules, but he can't help wondering why they need some of them.

And when you leave, he added, you wouldn't dare say anything because you might need to go back at some point in the future.

Being permanently red-flagged there, he said, he has nothing to lose. If people could speak freely, he said, maybe things could change.

But that thought does little to warm a man with no shelter in one of Canada's harshest winters in living memory.

In Part 3: The option left to Sam.

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