LISTOWEL – Due to demand and COVID restrictions Andrea Charest, director of It Takes A Village, said she had to turn away many people who wanted to participate in the “No Fixed Address” Tour on Sept. 18. A group of 28 federal candidates, municipal politicians, community leaders and concerned citizens were bussed around Listowel to learn firsthand from people dealing with mental health issues, addiction, precarious housing situations or homelessness.
“This experience is not about what’s going right, what’s going wrong, blaming anyone or anything like that,” Charest announced as the bus rolled out to head to the first stop. “Some of the people among you on this bus are parents and family members of people who have very publicly struggled within our community and they are going to share their stories. One of the things, when you leave today, that I hope you have a better understanding of is who the folks are who are navigating social concerns in our community.”
Before the bus made it to the first stop it passed a vehicle which has become home to one Listowel resident. The first stop was near a bridge that several people have lived underneath.
Alan, one of the riders on the bus who has experienced homelessness firsthand, spoke of the difficulties living under a bridge.
“Alan is someone I hold in highest of esteem as a teacher,” said Charest. “Alan has lived in different situations in and around our community including living outside all months of the year for more than two years… Unfortunately the media and different outlets paint a picture of homelessness to society that isn’t always accurate. What we want you to understand today is some of those different faces.”
Jennifer is a 48-year-old mother of three that reached out and said she wanted to be able to share her story and experiences.
“I have a spinal disease,” she said. “It affects every day of my life. There are days I get up and get my child on the bus does me in… So, therefore, working is not an option, I’m on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). I make a little over $17,000 per year.”
In 2016 she faced homelessness. She couldn’t get anyone to rent to her. She said that landlords told her she was too low income and they didn’t want her.
“I went on a waiting list for low-income housing, which was insane because… the application was unbelievable,” said Jennifer. “You are struggling to put food on the table, how do you afford a printer? How do you afford a $50 cartridge for ink?”
The application was submitted and she was put on the waiting list. It’s going on five years since her name has been on that waiting list. Thankfully, two months after she got onto the low-income housing waiting list she found a landlord in Atwood who was willing to rent to her.
Unfortunately, there is a new owner now that handed her an eviction notice at the end of August.
“Not that I don’t pay my rent,” said Jennifer. “He has got other ideas with the building and I face homelessness again… I’m trying to figure out for the life of me how I am going to afford $2,000 for rent. I don’t even make that. I struggle as it is. I have no credit because what credit I had many times had to cover medication not covered by the government.”
Charest pointed out that if you have someone else living in your home their income is applied to which can make it so that the children are responsible for supporting the parents.
“Exactly,” said Jennifer. “I was accepted for Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPPD) right away. ODSP told me once I was accepted for CPPD I would get accepted by them but I was denied four times. The reason I was denied four times is that I had a son living with me who not only worked full time but was going to college. Yes, he would contribute to bills but he also had to pay for his vehicle to get to college… (and) for his tuition.”
Because of her son’s income, Jennifer was told she didn’t qualify for ODSP.
“At this point, I do have an adult son living with me,” she said. “They did put him as a border. I lose money off my cheque monthly because he is a border… People would say, how about going to a shelter? When you are immune-compromised or you have small children – a shelter is not the answer.”
The next stop the bus made was near a storage container.
“This is a face of homelessness that you might not consider,” said Charest. “So last winter there was a woman (living here), a long-time community member. Her family farmed here. She was a mom herself.”
The woman ended up struggling with drug addiction while also navigating the loss of a son, poverty and mental illness.
“When she was evicted she put all of her things in a storage locker and she was given the options by housing to go to Stratford or Kitchener-Waterloo,” said Charest. “She did not want to leave her people, her family was here, her kids were here, everything was here. She went to school here. She was raised here. She didn’t want to leave that, especially after losing one son, she didn’t want to be away from the other son… There are no options here.”
One very cold morning last December, Charest got a call from OPP on the weekend. The police said they had talked to the woman about having her connect with Stratford social services but she did not want to do that.
“I picked her up… and we chatted a bit,” said Charest. “She finally agreed to go to Stratford, even just for a hot shower and to sleep for a day or two because how can you face the world when you are not showering, you are not sleeping, you are not eating properly? You cannot.”
Susan is a mother who worked many years at the Listowel Memorial Hospital. She has raised her family here with her husband and one of her sons had one of the most public struggles with mental illness and homelessness in Listowel last year.
“So for those people who say we bring homeless people here you need to listen… so that you can go back to other people who feel that we’re facilitating things in our community and you can say that is not the case,” said Charest. “If you had nothing – not a home, not a meal, everything you owned was in your backpack would you come to Listowel? Would you come here? Would you say could you drop me off there? I don’t have a way to get out of there but could you drop me off there because I hear they feed homeless people there. I’m not going to go to Kitchener. I’m not going to go to Stratford where the resources are. Heck – I’m going to Listowel.”
One of the riders in the back of the bus asked if the woman living in the container did have family here, why she could not go live with them.
“I will tell you right now and I think I’m being completely honest and transparent that every family has issues,” said Charest. “If… you are struggling with issues that your family is not proud of, and you are not proud of… it’s not an option to move in with those people… Some of those options are just not possible for people.”
“The other thing that people don’t always think of is that many people come out of homes where there is a significant amount of trauma and abuse and going back there is not part of their health plan,” said Dr. Gillian Edmonds.
Susan shared her story.
“I have a 46-year-old son who (has) been homeless for the last two years,” she said. “He also has 27 years of schizophrenia. It started in his high school years and we managed – he managed for about 25 years with great difficulty, with his meds and so forth… but eventually, it got the better of him and he did get into drugs. At that point, he lost his housing and lost his support from ODSP. I don’t know where he is at this point but we tried, for the gentleman who asked, well why doesn’t his family support him – we did for 25 years and it comes to a point…”
Susan’s voice broke as she was choked up with emotion.
“…where you just can’t do it anymore because nothing had changed with our attempts to help him. So I do know last year he was in London and was arrested for setting a fire in a parking lot because he was freezing and trying to get warm for the night. And when he went to jail he got beat up. I think they took pity on him for getting beat up and they put him into St. Thomas Forensic Mental Health Centre and I certainly thought things were going to go better after that. He was getting clean and he was getting some regular medication but for whatever reasons they discharged him and I haven’t heard from him since.”
“The hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Susan. “When he called from there and said they’ll let me out mom if you’ll let me come home.”
She was visibly upset.
“And I had to say no,” she said.
“The people in our communities that are struggling, these are our people,” said Charest. “They are not coming in by the busloads from out of town. They are people who are navigating issues right here in our community.”
She introduced Steven, a young man struggling with addiction, noting that media has painted a picture of this region as a hotspot for drugs.
“It sounds like we’ve got people running up and down the street holding their drug paraphernalia and celebrating the fact that it’s the drug capital,” said Charest. “That is so inaccurate – we have people who are navigating addiction… Is it something that’s based on mental health… maybe there are things like that, that are in play but if you struggle with addiction within our community you don’t have a lot of resources.”
She did point out that organizations like Choices for Change are doing “fantastic” work but she wanted to let Steven talk about his story of navigating addiction and what it’s like to be on a waiting list for rehab.
“Since age 16 I’ve been using,” he said. “I had a rough childhood… quite recently I almost lost my brother and my mom. It opened my eyes that I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to get better… I don’t want to live that drug life anymore. I don’t want to raise my brother in that.”
He said the most frustrating thing about getting help is the wait.
“I could end up overdosing because I could relapse,” said Steven. “I did relapse but I am moving forward.”
He is on a short waiting list for a two-week program.
“It’s just something to help but I need the six-month program and that’s where it is a six-month waitlist to get into that program,” said Steven.
“Even though we give people resources or we have an organization that might come to the community once a week because that’s what their funding allows, people have to be able to navigate those other six days… and that is not an easy thing,” said Charest. “You get up, make a coffee, brush your teeth – when you are struggling with addiction, which Steven has taught me, all of those things can be triggers to get you to use because that’s your familiarity every day.”
The participants on the tour were brought to a parking lot where they were introduced to Lexi, a resident of one of the homeless encampments. She had volunteered to act as a tour guide for a visit.
“This isn’t about an African Lion Safari tour where you get on the bus and then you go home and you tell all your friends, ‘oh my god, I saw the camp,’” said Charest. “This is about giving you tools so that you can make decisions and have dialogue that is educated, informed and compassionate.”
On the hike to the encampment, Steven got into a discussion with Luke, a man who has been living rough in the area for several years.
“I live with my mom,” said Steven. “The only way I can stay there is going to rehab but I used to be homeless. “
“What was your poison?” asked Luke.
“Crack,” said Steven.
“That’s a hard one,” replied Luke.
“I made it 90 days,” said Steven.
“Congratu-fricking-lations, man,” said Luke.
“Thank you,” said Steven. “I just relapsed two weeks ago but in two weeks I’m going to rehab. I’m getting the help I need.”
“That’s big man,” said Luke. “That’s really big. Good for you.”
Steven said he doesn’t want to be like his dad.
“He’s got a good job but he smokes crack and that’s how I got involved in it,” he said. “I just want to live like my mom. I want to live a normal life.”
“Well congratulations on 90 days,” said Luke. “That’s big.”
On the walk to the camp, Steven spoke of his plan to start a landscaping business after rehab.
One of the people on the tour asked Lexi how many camps there are in town.
She said there were at least two others, possibly more.
Lexi was asked if they are left in peace or if there is harassment.
“We have the occasional cops come,” she replied.
“And are they here to support?” a tour participant asked.
“They do come to help out whenever they can,” said Lexi. “They do ask their questions. They don’t tend to come two or three days in a row because that is classified as harassment… so they try to avoid coming out here unless they have to – like if they are looking for someone.”
“How do you get your money to support yourself?” asked another one of the tour participants.
“I’m trying to get on Ontario Works,” said Lexi.
“No, I’m saying right now,” the participant said. “You’re trying to get on things I understand that.”
“I don’t get any money right now,” said Lexi.
“So how do you buy food or get food?” the participant asked.
“We get gift cards from Andrea actually,” said Lexi. “We go to food banks and stuff like that.”
“Then, not to be too personal or anything else here, but again I’m trying to understand what’s your background before coming here?” the participant asked.
“I was in Durham, Toronto area,” said Lexi. “When I was 13, my dad had killed himself... When I was 16 I moved here. I was in foster homes my entire life. I have a history of depression and anxiety… In that whole area my dad knew everybody so it was hard to go around without recognition of him… So that’s why I moved down here… I moved to Listowel to be with Zack and it’s just finding a place now.”
“Your educational background is what?” asked the participant.
“I have my high school,” she replied.
“So after the vaccine, you are going to get a job, look for work,” she was asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Zack, is he the same?” the participant asked.
“He works in construction,” said Lexi.
Several of the riders on the bus tour mentioned how close they live to the camps and how little evidence they have seen of the homeless community.
“They’re invisible,” one of them said.
When the group got back on the bus Charest asked them if there was any feedback on their walk to the encampment.
“We need a basic income,” one of the participants said loudly.
The last stop of the tour was It Takes A Village for pizza and discussion. Charest took the opportunity to show everyone a Naloxone kit.
“You hear about the crisis of opioids in our community – you’ve heard of fentanyl, heroin,” she said. “Naloxone is a free kit that you can get from any pharmacy… this is the antidote to the overdose… You might think I am never going to encounter someone having an overdose. I encourage you to change that thought. This should be as regular for everyday folks as a first-aid kit.”
John Nater, incumbent MP for the riding of Perth-Wellington, asked Charest to explain the point system the Village uses instead of money.
“Every single person who comes in here gets 20 points to shop with and the whole point of that is to take money right out of the equation,” she said. “You need to empower people as opposed to make things inaccessible… it is a business model like none other so we hope to see more popping up.”
It wasn’t just federal election candidates who came out for the tour. A couple of North Perth council members attended and several others have contacted Charest letting her know they had prior engagements but were interesting in meeting to learn more.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” said Coun. Julie Behrns. “I am here just to listen – be aware. Everyone has a different story. Everyone has a different issue… North Perth came out with a huge statement this week about dealing with some of the issues and it’s just a matter for me of trying to learn as much as I can and trying to put it all into perspective… I have learned quite a bit so I’m very glad that I came. It raises your awareness.”
Coun. Neil Anstett was still digesting the tour experience but he emailed the Banner some quick thoughts.
“It was very worthwhile to see these camps and meet some of the people living in them,” he wrote. “I am certainly open to working with all levels of government on solutions that are beneficial for everyone involved.”
Nater said the experience was “exceptionally informative.”
“You get to see some of the areas where people are living and I think this reinforces that we need to do more to look at options, especially in small rural communities, for people experiencing homelessness,” he said. “So often we talk about poverty and homelessness being invisible and I think (we should) be looking at more innovative options in smaller towns… A big thank you to It Takes A Village for actually coordinating this because they can demonstrate and show where the needs are rather than sometimes being glossed over – making sure it’s right in our face, right in our view.”
Liberal candidate Brendan Knight said he had seen the increase in homelessness in Stratford but didn’t know the same thing was happening in Listowel.
He works for Scarborough MPP Mitzie Hunter so he said regardless of the outcome of the federal election, he was going to attempt to encourage discussion of the issues at the provincial level.
“Having services where they have to go to Stratford, I don’t think that is acceptable,” said Knight. “Going to Stratford or Kitchener when Listowel is such a growing community. The distance, I grew up here, I know how far away it is … and I have been aware of the trouble with mental health services.”
New Democrat candidate Kevin Kruchkywich appreciated the opportunity Charest gave the candidates to reach across partisan lines to be a single community learning about constituents in need. He called the experience “a call to action.”
“Not enough is being done to help the people of Perth-Wellington who are experiencing addiction and homelessness,” he said. “It will take co-operation from all levels of government to tackle this. The bottom line is, we need housing… and it needs to come in conjunction with support for vulnerable Canadians. Bickering between parties has got to end, and we have to get down to the business of helping out our neighbours.”
Kruchkywich’s campaign manager, Kathy Vassilakos, is also a council member in the City of Stratford.
“I appreciated the tour this morning because it focused on the human impact of the housing and homelessness crisis in our communities,” she said. “One of the lessons I have learned during my time on the Social Research and Planning Council is that research and data do not tell a complete story. Solutions to some of our greatest challenges require the participation of those with lived experience. I am grateful to the individuals who shared their stories today. I am personally grateful to the mother who shared the story of her son who lives with schizophrenia and the difficult choices families are often forced to make. As the child of someone who has struggled for decades with the same mental illness, I know how difficult it can be to share our experiences.”
Charest said she hopes what people take away from the tour is that championing homelessness right now is admirable and necessary, but until larger social determinants such as health, fair wages, more funding for mental health and addiction resources are dealt with in rural communities, she doesn’t know if people can efficiently expect to combat issues like housing insecurities.
“These social concerns cause profound stress for people,” she said. “How will you eat or feed your family or your pet? How can you pay your bills or provide necessities for yourself or those you love when on current government assistance or working for minimum wage and with no dental or medical benefits? What if substance dependency is how you navigate that stress or mental health becomes debilitating and you cannot make it through the days? We need to have an honest dialogue about these issues so that we can better provide a holistic solution to the issue of homelessness. We cannot simply pull people out of the water… when we need to go upstream and understand why they are falling in, in the first place.”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner