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Many faces of the homeless

CORNWALL – The definition of homelessness has changed – just ask Tim.

He has a roof over his head most nights, and a post office box for mail. But it’s been nearly a year since the 36-year-old Cornwall man had permanent shelter to call his own.

“I’m a couch surfer,” he says. “With social assistance, I can’t afford to have an apartment and eat.”

Tim, who didn’t want his last name published, receives under $600 a month from Ontario Works, or less when he collects a paycheque from odd jobs.

“I haven’t been working for two and a half weeks,” says Tim, a construction worker with more than two decades of experience.

The lack of steady income is the main reason he’s unable to get back on his feet, but it’s only one factor that led him to the streets in the first place.

His mother — “my best friend,” he says — died three years ago. He began drinking heavily, and dabbled in drugs. Last fall, he split with his common-law wife of 15 years. The company he started a few years ago faltered, thanks to the economic downturn.

For more than two weeks last winter, he slept in the Cornwall Square parking garage. Then he found shelter in cars and trailers. Now, he stays in the homes of friends he met over lunch at the Agape’s soup kitchen.

He’s not the only one.

“I know 150 people who are homeless or couch surfers,” Tim says.

The numbers aren’t disputed, and agencies are worried about the growing number of those living in poverty.

“I think the issue of homelessness is growing,” says Alyssa Blais, executive director of the Agape Centre. “But poverty in general is growing, the working poor (population) is growing.”

“It’s not as obvious as it is in other communities,” adds Michelle Gratton, head of the Social Development Council. “People say quickly we don’t have homelessness.”

But Gratton says she knows many young people who identify in the same group as Tim: without their own home and just scraping by, often because of broken relationships.

“It’s not easy to be a single-parent family,” says Blais. “It really is a two-person economy. Living together makes it a lot easier, but there’s a high percentage of single mothers.”

Assistance is available through Ontario Works and Cornwall’s housing agency, but it’s not always enough to allow people to get ahead. Many aren’t even aware of the resources.

“There’s a lot of programs, a lot of assistance in the community, a lot of places people can go,” says Gratton. “For them it’s a lack of information… They don’t know where to go.”

She says the gaping hole in city services is an emergency shelter, especially for men, so they don’t fall into a cycle of sleeping on the street or friends’ sofas.

Tim doesn’t hesitate to agree with Gratton; he even plans to sleep outside city hall later this fall as a way to raise awareness of the need for a shelter.

There’s a man from Montreal who might appreciate it as well — he’s been spending many of his nights outside the Agape Centre.

“We do have a homeless man living underneath our stairs,” says Blais. “We’ve been telling him to leave and he still comes back.”

Mayor Bob Kilger says he would need to see data and research before supporting any new initiatives targeting homelessness in the city; for now he’s satisfied with the current slate of services.

“I know that we have very quick response and a lot of co-operation between stakeholders,” he says. “We’re able to respond 24/7 in a very timely fashion, and work with people on a case-by-case basis.”

Though Kilger acknowledges the problem, he says homelessness isn’t a major topic of discussion at city hall.

“It’s not brought to our attention that alarm bells are going off,” says Kilger. “That’s not to diminish anyone’s situation…but I’m satisfied right now that we’re being very responsive on the issue.”

For short term help, the homeless can find emergency assistance through Cornwall’s social housing agency.

Melissa Morgan, program supervisor, says a 24-hour phone line, plus partnerships with the police and other groups ensure anyone who asks for shelter will have it. It fills in much the same way Baldwin House helps out women who need immediate care.

“We do everything we can,” says Morgan. “No individual should be without housing overnight.”

The domiciliary hostel program also doles out cash to those who need temporary help finding a place to live. It’s designed to fill the gap left by Cornwall’s housing corporation, which has a lengthy waiting list for subsidized units.

“People often come and they need shelter immediately,” explains Anne-Marie Fobert-Poirier, program co-ordinator for the city’s housing department. “But we don’t have any emergency units.”

There are several programs in place to assist with rent payments or energy bills for people struggling to cover their costs. For those who do snag one of nearly 2,000 subsidized apartments throughout the counties, rent is steady at one-third of their income.

The waiting list has around 750 names, says social and housing services manager Debora Daigle, a slight increase from previous years. Singles have to be patient longer than most, since most units are designed for families or seniors.

Our greatest need would be for one-bedroom units for non-seniors,” says Fobert-Poirier.

With a lower turnover than usual — attributed to a shaky economy — people have a long time to wait for vacancies.

In the meantime, around 100 people on the waiting list are currently receiving help through other initiatives, like the so-called “eviction avoidance” program. Daigle says the city received $23.5 million from the provincial and federal governments this year to pay for the services, in addition to $9 million earmarked for housing.

Tim, however, has little faith in government initiatives, so he’s finding help elsewhere. He took a withdrawal management program to end his drug and alcohol use; he’s handing out resumes to find work; he found a basement to rent from a friend for $400 a month — he moves in next month.

“I’m tired of the way I’m living,” he says.

The turning point for him came last December, when he tried to overdose on drugs. Now he carries around a picture of his 10-year-old daughter Samantha in his shirt pocket as a reminder of why he’s still here, and as motivation to stay on the straight-and-narrow.

“I found a cause: helping others,” he says.

He has company in Gary Samler, a semi-retired poverty activist who ran for Cornwall city council last fall. He took his campaign to the streets this summer to improve his understanding of the issue.

“That is my number one goal, is to raise community awareness and the change the way we think about homelessness in Cornwall,” he says.

Under his street name Reggie Walker, Samler eats at the Agape and wanders downtown with other homeless. He says a one-stop drop-in centre would make a huge difference for those struggling to find work, fill their stomachs and access resources.

“There’s nothing for them to do other than walk around,” he says.

Tim knows what that’s like. He’s desperate for a job, knowing a steady paycheque is the only obstacle between his current lifestyle and a home of his own.

“I have a good reputation,” he says. “I’m always on time. When I have work, I’m a workaholic.”

For those that might need a little more help, Blais says solutions should come from all city stakeholders.

“It takes a concerted effort from the community, municipality and the clients themselves,” she says. “I would like to see a poverty reduction plan for Cornwall.”

She’s already working toward that goal, alongside Gratton and others, and they have a Poverty Free Ontario rally planned for next month.

“The most important thing is to bring the issue out and let people realize it isn’t an epidemic, but it is a problem,” says Samler. “It’s something that should be looked in to.”




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