‘Hidden homelessness’ in Haldimand-Norfolk

·3 min read

A survey of homelessness in Haldimand-Norfolk last fall found 117 residents without adequate housing, and homeless prevention staff say the true number is likely much higher.

Volunteer canvassers and social services employees fanned out over two days last November and asked passersby where they slept the night of Nov. 17. In total, they interviewed 350 people at 91 locations.

Of the 117 residents found to be in need of better housing, 20 per cent were living on the streets, finding shelter in parks, the woods, abandoned buildings or cars.

A smaller number slept in one of the region’s 17 emergency homeless shelter beds or at the 19-bed women’s shelter in Simcoe.

But the majority were what housing support worker Nikki Wagenaar called the “hidden homeless,” people who found somewhere to sleep but have no place to call their own.

Some residents in this category were out of the elements by virtue of being in jail, a mental health or drug treatment facility, or a transitional shelter, but once released they will have nowhere to go.

Other “hidden homeless” live on friends’ couches and are constantly on the move.

That transient lifestyle makes this group “the hardest to capture,” Wagenaar said.

Housing staff teamed up with 20 local agencies — from church groups to parole officers — to get leads on where to find residents who lack stable housing. But Wagenaar cautioned that any moment-in-time count will fall short of capturing the actual number of people experiencing homelessness.

“With being a rural area, our enumeration would probably look a lot different than even Hamilton or Kitchener, where there’s one major city centre,” she added.

The survey found the largest segment of Haldimand-Norfolk’s homeless population is between 25 and 35 years old, followed by those aged 36 to 49.

Ten per cent of respondents were youth under 25 while five per cent were seniors over 65.

Most respondents were male and 17 per cent identified as Indigenous.

Nearly three-quarters said substance use or mental health — or both — contributed to their situation, while half cited an illness or medication condition.

Rise in ‘renovictions’

Nearly all survey respondents reported having some source of income — whether through part-time employment or government assistance — but 35 per cent said the main reason they were homeless was the high cost of rent.

Some said they became homeless after their landlords evicted them — ostensibly to do renovations or move in themselves — and then listed the unit at a much higher rent.

“We’ve got all kinds of evictions happening for ‘owner occupy.’ Some legitimate, some not,” said Louise Lovell, program manager with homeless prevention services.

“Who’s paying attention to whether the owner ever moves in? There’s no followup.”

Lovell and Wagenaar see a local trend of seniors who paid modest rent for years or even decades being evicted because landlords are selling the property. These residents often fall into homelessness.

“When somebody’s used to paying $400 or $500 for rent and they’re looking at prices of $1,500 for a one-bedroom (apartment), they can’t even fathom it,” Wagenaar said.

Wagenaar said the solution is not simply more housing stock but “enough affordable housing for all residents of varying income levels in our local communities,” along with adequate support from social service agencies to keep residents housed for the long haul.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

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