I’m fixing dinner on another damp – what a surprise – Halifax evening and enjoying the momentary peace in my large kitchen.
Behind me, a middle-aged Mom is trying to persuade her two-year-old that milk tastes better than juice and, not surprisingly, losing that argument for the moment. To my left a younger woman is perched on a stool, engrossed in a third year university Chemistry text; heck, at Dalhousie, I never made it past the first page of that book, which is why I promptly switched back to Psych. From the living room, I hear laughter about some of the latest signs to appear in our home:
“Please do not dry cigarettes in the Microwave. Thank you, Staff”
“Please do not open window – it will fall out. Thank you, Staff”
“Squash stew for breakfast – enjoy! - Your Staff”
Welcome to my new home. Welcome to a Halifax Shelter for Homeless Women.
There is no “typical” homeless woman but if there’s a common factor for those of us staying at a shelter here in Atlantic Canada, it’s simply that we do not have a safe place – or maybe any place - to stay. Sometimes we do not have a roof over our heads because of health issues. We may need a place to stay because we have lost our jobs. Sometimes, we’ve been abandoned by the family who always told us, “You’ll never have to worry, we’ll be there for you.” – if we even have a family here in the Maritimes. We may be recovering from the unexpected shock that there is no one there for us. Our resources have just plain run out.
Hannah, making dinner for her daughter, has been unable to find affordable rental accommodation that also accepts children in the H.R.M., which is where she moved after she lost her job in Cape Breton. “I borrowed the money to take a bus here, just because we figured there were more jobs in the Halifax”, Hannah explains. Hannah had not expected that when she arrived, she would be unable to find housing that she could afford, with or without her child. And she still can’t.
Hannah has now become a member of an exclusive club, which, for want of a better label, might be called the CAE Club – the “Chicken and Egg” Club, where I too am now an unwilling member.
You may be part of the CAE Club because you need housing to get a job – a place to get dressed, receive mail, communicate with employers, store your belongings, do laundry, have meals. BUT you need a job in order to get that place and pay for that home. That job will provide the rent to get a place to live, or to satisfy a landlord that you are working and can afford your rent. For many of us at a shelter, the question of getting a job, or getting a home first, no longer makes any difference. We currently no longer have resources to make either happen.
This is where homeless shelters provide valuable and needed support. Originally referred to as Emergency Housing or Emergency Shelters, you may be hearing the word “Emergency” less and less. Some of the women around me have been in a shelter for months – there is simply no other place to live. What was expected to be temporary, emergency housing for us is now an “emergency” on a daily basis. And this housing may also no longer be temporary. No matter how much some of my shelter house-mates may no longer want to stay at a shelter – it’s not an option, no matter how much they want to work, or how many jobs we are willing to take on. Our “temporary” shelters may soon need another name since shelter residents may truly have no place to go after many months of living here.
In 1998, the Big City Mayors Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) declared homelessness in Canada a national disaster
That was thirteen years ago.
By conservative estimates, today there are over 200,000 people in Canada who are homeless, according to organizers of November’s Housing and Homeless Conference here in Halifax. And, women, youth, and families are the fastest growing groups in the homeless and at-risk populations.
In the kitchen on this rainy night, my Chemistry-text-loving friend, Denise, and I are now looking for the best place to put her cane so I don’t keep tripping over it. Denise represents another audience needing Shelters; she has a health issue – in her case, a stroke that she suffered a year ago. Denise’s subsequent inability to walk unaided was something that her new husband could not cope with. In spite of some great health care agencies which worked with the couple to create Denise’s successful transition from a wheelchair to her cane, “He just didn’t expect to be looking after me”, says Denise of her husband. He kicked her out of a home where her name was not on the rental agreement. Her husband since left the province, along with their car and bankbook.
I remember another health “victim” at another HRM shelter with a similar story, but Lenore faced even greater problems – she not only could not walk properly, but a stroke had affected her speech. Lenore’s move to a shelter came after she discovered that the mortgage for the home she shared with her partner of twenty years did not include her name, and he “no longer wanted me anyway”, she says. She could not afford to hire a lawyer or use Legal Aid options, none of which she qualified for. Lenore did, however, qualify for her current shelter residence which is where I got to know her, and where I finally discovered someone who could beat me at a game I had ruled all my life; I am no longer the Maritime Scrabble Queen.
When I asked Stephanie, a staff member at an H.R.M. shelter what was the hardest part of her job, she did not say the volume of women needing housing, or the diverse needs which residents require during a serious or even life-threatening time. Stephanie said, “The hardest part of my job is telling a homeless woman who is already facing the worst day of her life, that she has to move – whether she has a place to go or not. Her time to use a Shelter for her (much-needed) roof over her head has run out. Whether she has a place to go or not, there is someone who also now needs that her space.” There is no longer a “room at the inn.”
I continue to be amazed at how “up” most residents are in these situations which are so often just unbearable – no home, sometimes limited food, cramped surroundings. It seemed to go without saying that residents usually give incredible support to others also living at the shelter. A house-mate will offer an exhausted young Mom some down time from her cranky baby. Today, one the residents who has stayed at the shelter the longest, dropped a pile of books off by my bed after a great discussion about best authors and she saw how much I enjoyed a good read. This weekend, I also received an unsolicited Tim Hortons’ gift card when another housemate passed along the card which had been given to her to share.
There are, of course, downsides to living at a shelter and, for me, noise is my greatest challenge. I am used to a pretty quiet life, but that does not necessarily fit with the in-the-gene-pool gift of gab we Maritimers are inevitably born with. Nor is waiting to do laundry, or the other, sometimes questionable, rules which can come with communal living. Still….there are success stories celebrated at Women’s Shelters every day – and celebrate we do.
A former Shelter roommate, Barb, has just been accepted into a community college chef program and her application for financial support, allowing her to move forward with her life was also approved. The mother sharing the kitchen with me - Hannah – thinks she has found an apartment where children are allowed, although she will need another room mate to help with the rent.
I’m about to take this evening’s dinner to the living room and join in a twelve-women, lively, discussion about the Grey Cup game and the Lions’ victory. Yes, this is a Women’s Shelter. And yes, a sports-focused conversation about football may not be what one expects in a place for homeless women. But surprises are definitely part of my current life. I am just looking forward to the happy surprise of having a new home again, but I am so glad I have this shelter, and the amazing company of these new friends, until that home finally happens. And it will. To date, staff tells me, no one has ever been here forever.
*The author's name has been changed.