How can we sleep at night knowing people are homeless?
That’s what I asked myself two cold winters ago as I crossed a snowy railway bridge near my home. I looked down through the railings and saw someone’s bare leg. They were trying to sleep hidden in the shrubs along the train tracks.
With the rising cost of rental housing, many people are experiencing homelessness for the first time in their lives. And every person you see panhandling at a stop light, or living under a tarp in a park has a story.
Becoming homeless can begin with losing a job, untended mental illness, or a personal tragedy. At a recent meeting about encampments, one man in his 30s described how five years ago, he thought he had a perfect life. He and his wife had jobs and a nice apartment. Then their baby daughter died, the marriage broke down, and things spiralled badly from there.
In a private conversation, a young woman in her late teens whispered to me that she was a street worker and had nowhere to live. Could I find her a place to stay?
That same wintry day I crossed that bridge, I read that a group in Kitchener had built tiny homes for those living rough.
HATS (Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters) was born soon after with the goal of providing homes (up to 25 to start with) for those sleeping unsheltered. The plans include on-site wraparound social service supports, washrooms, a kitchen, a communal meeting space, and a place where residents can meet privately with support staff.
Programs like this across Canada are designed as a short-term measure. Permanent, supported housing is still the best answer, and local organizations (such as Indwell) are successfully building and operating homes with the long view in mind.
HATS has attracted dedicated professionals who volunteer their leadership; breaking the stigma around homelessness remains a tougher challenge.
So here are some myth-breakers:
1. They’re all on drugs and they’re dangerous
Yes, substance use is an issue, and it can lead to psychotic incidents. But not everyone takes drugs. Living on the street, makes you vulnerable and constantly on the alert, fearful of personal safety. Most are simply exhausted from lack of sleep.
2. They could just go to a shelter
The current underestimated number of people living rough is more than 1,600; there are presently 515 shelter spaces in the city, not enough to meet the need.
Aside from this, shelter providers cannot accommodate couples, or those with pets. Animals are a big comfort, and surrendering them to the SPCA for a bed is not a choice.
A good night’s sleep isn’t even guaranteed. Shelter dorms can be noisy, theft is common, with bed bugs and exposure to COVID-19 or ‘flu some of the additional challenges.
About a third of those on the street identify as Indigenous, and are at additional risk of discrimination; homophobic and transphobic violence is a major barrier to accessing shelter services for those who are LGBTQ2S.
When it comes to our own community, we imagine homelessness happens to other people. Sadly, this may not be the case. A couple of years ago, Hamilton Jewish Family Services told me they had run across homeless Jewish individuals in our city.
Our most recent report on poverty was commissioned nearly 20 years ago in 2004 by UIA Federations Canada. The shocking finding was this: Hamilton has the highest poverty levels of any Jewish community in the country, with one in five children living in poverty.
Today our food bank, Carol’s Cupboard, serves more than 200 people — more than double the usual number from past years. And we don’t know how many Jewish families among us are struggling to keep a roof over their heads.
Maybe we can start finding a way to address our own largely hidden dilemma.
Meanwhile, HATS has found a home. At the time of writing, Council approved city-owned land, and if all goes according to plan, we can set up our program before the snow flies this winter.
We can’t help everyone that needs it, but providing a warm, safe place to heal for a small number is a good start.
Visit our website, hamiltontinyshelters.ca to learn more.
Julia Kollek is the founder and past President of HATS (Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters). As well, she is a professional writer and academic editor.