In the year that he has been homeless, John Ward said he has heard every reason in the book for being denied a place to live.
“Yesterday I called a place, a woman asked me my age, and then she hung up,” said Ward, 66, who has been living at Blue Door Shelters in Newmarket for the past two months. “You get all kinds of disciminatory requirements.”
Michael Braithwaite, the CEO of Blue Door, is hoping a new initiative called 200 Doors launched by nine social services agencies in York Region will help. The campaign launched last month aims to connect those living in emergency shelters or in unsafe conditions with landlords willing to “look the other way” when it comes to credit rating, or having sufficient identification.
“Shelters are very expensive, and they are not what all our clients need, but they often don’t have a choice,” said Braithwaite. “A lot of our clients say to us, if you help me find housing, I can afford it, but they may have had to run in the middle of the night from their abusers, or they may have a credit record — and no one will give them a chance.”
With little available affordable housing in the region, Braithwaite said the agencies are hoping to house 200 people by the end of March through this initiative. So far, they have 60 landlords who have agreed to take part — but they are hoping to add more to the roster.
“If you rent to any tenant and something goes wrong, you don’t really have a recourse. But in this case, you are working with an agency in addition to a tenant,” he said, adding that they are looking for a variety of apartments, homes and shared accommodations, which is a “reality for most of our clients.”
In the last decade, the waiting list for subsidized housing in York Region has more than doubled. The most recent numbers for the region — as of the end of 2019 — showed 17,457 households in the queue. The region attributed the ballooning numbers to high housing costs, a lack of rental housing, growth in the area’s population and low-income households, and a growing population of seniors.
About 300 households are given subsidized housing each year, a regional spokesperson said, but those numbers are declining as affordable housing options wane. Excluding seniors, the average wait time in York in 2019 was 11.5 years for single people housed in one-bedrooms.
Braithwaite conceded that housing 200 people is a drop in the bucket compared to the need in the municipality. “We could have found a thousand people looking for housing, but we decided to be more realistic,” he said.
According to Lorris Herenda, executive director of Yellow Brick House, an agency taking part in the campaign, 80 per cent of people who access emergency housing are one-time users of the system who then manage to get back on their feet.
“People using emergency housing did not intend on being there. They are women, children, youth, seniors and families who just want a fair chance to rebuild their lives,” said Herenda.
Lance Pellettier, a landlord in King City, who has been renting rooms for $750 each, said that he has taken part in the program since it started, in part because the agencies act like a reference for renters.
“When you put an ad on Kijiji, you don’t know anything about a person, but in this case, you do,” he said. “The main thing is that I know they have some kind of financial backing before they come here … so that’s appealing,” he said, adding that in his case he has been given first and last months’ rent in advance for two tenants.
After months of couch surfing, and living in shelters, Ward said he’s looking forward to finding stable housing and having “his life going back to normal.”
“When you are homeless, it’s hard to keep your chin up,” he said. “A shelter is a shelter. It’s not home.”
Noor Javed, Staff Reporter, Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star