What homelessness looks like for women in Canada
Last week's budget committed $11.2-billion to social-housing initiatives. As Erin Anderssen writes, the best use of those funds requires different approaches for different populations, including those in the north, people with mental illnesses and women
For eight months last year, Noreen Begoray lived in her silver 2006 Jeep Liberty, with her two little schipperke dogs, Gypsy and Kako. She parked near a dog park in Victoria with a view of the ocean – "The best space in town," she says – and nobody bothered her. At night, she slept under blankets in the back, with the second-row seats laid flat. Kako slept curled up beside her. Gypsy preferred the front seat.
Begoray ate peanut butter sandwiches and broccoli, and shared her food with the dogs. She showered at the YMCA, and "peed all over town," searching out public washrooms and 24-hour convenience stores. But she was protected from the weather and safe behind locked doors at night. "It wasn't that bad," she says. "I would see people sleeping on the street and in the bushes, and I would joke and tell people, 'I am the elite of the homeless.'"
At 61, Begoray, who is single, found herself laid off from her teaching job at the University of Victoria, and evicted from her apartment. Begoray doesn't have children; the dogs are her closest family, and she refused to give them up, which made finding housing harder, although she did rely on the hospitality of friends for a time. At one point, she considered answering an ad to share an apartment, but decided she felt safer in her car.
Homelessness has tended to stereotype: a scruffy patron of the sidewalk, an alcoholic or a drug addict, begging for change – and, notably, male. None of this describes Begoray, which is why women like her may fall through the cracks of a system designed to treat the chronically homeless. Begoray doesn't have a serious mental illness or an addiction, which might have helped her queue-jump into certain programs. She wasn't fleeing a violent relationship – as are many women who find themselves homeless – so she couldn't go to a women's shelter, most of which, especially in cities, are already overloaded with families. And she's single, when priority for affordable housing goes to mothers with children, though even they may have to wait years to get it.
Roughly 200,000 Canadians end up homeless each year, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada. But like other women who live in their cars, or couch-surf with friends, or are extending their stay in women's shelters because they have nowhere else to go, Begoray may not be counted among those statistics – not unless the counters knocked on the window of her Jeep.
The money committed in last month's federal budget is meant to bring those homeless numbers down, while also improving conditions for Canadians living in aged, dilapidated social-housing units, or searching fruitlessly for affordable rentals. After years of funding shortfalls, housing and homeless advocates cheered the news: Ottawa has promised to spend more than $11.2-billion. This includes money for a national housing fund, federal-provincial agreements, programs targeted to the homeless and housing money for northern and Indigenous Canadians on- and off-reserve. As well, Ottawa has promised to extend "baseline funding" for lease agreements that, between the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and affordable-housing providers, were due to expire.
That most of those dollars will be sprinkled like change into a homeless person's hat over the next 11 years (and well past the current Liberal mandate) was disheartening. But it's more money than the issue has seen in a long time, especially after Harper government cuts. Now comes the challenge: how to spend it wisely, and equitably, so all the paths to homelessness and precarious housing are accounted for.
For instance, those who focus on housing issues for poor women are often critical of Ottawa's focus on Housing First as a homelessness strategy. Housing First is a successful and cost-effective program being used around the world that gets long-time homeless people off the street by putting them in apartments and bringing social services to them. But a national report on the program found that only 32 per cent of Housing First beneficiaries were women.
Meanwhile, women's shelters have struggled financially to provide their own gender-specific services: legal aid, trauma counselling, access to child care, housing that safeguards women from violent partners. In some cases, since shelters were not seen as permanent housing, they didn't qualify for government money. When financial support was provided, it might only cover physical structures – leaving second-stage shelters, which provide individual apartments with support staff and security features, to scrounge for money to cover costs of those services.
Even when money is made available, care has to be taken to distribute it fairly, says Lise Martin, executive director of Women's Shelters Canada. For example, Martin says, when the 2016 budget committed $90-million over two years for shelter renovation and construction, the money was dispersed between the provinces and territories based on population, meaning that the three territories saw only $500,000 each – an amount that failed to account for need and the high construction costs facing shelters in Canada's north. (In this year's budget, $525-million was set aside for Indigenous and northern housing.)
Because subsidized housing units are in short supply, women often feel pressured to take what's offered, even risking being found by an abusive spouse. This is what happened to "Maryam," an Iranian immigrant in British Columbia, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of her safety.
After escaping her abusive husband, Maryam and her adult daughter stayed at a local women's shelter for months even though, technically, stays are only supposed to last four weeks. Many women stay much longer because they don't have other options, forcing shelters to turn away other clients. "What are we going to do?" says Pany Aghili, executive director of Dixon Transition Society in Burnaby, B.C. "Put women on the street?"
When a subsidized unit became available, Maryam took it even though it was close to her ex-husband's work – turn down a spot, and you may not get another. She and her daughter endured a rodent problem, but when he was seen in the neighbourhood, asking around for her location, they moved back to the shelter. "It is safe and we are secure here," Maryam says. Eventually, though, she will need to move out of the shelter. "If he finds us again, we will have to run away again."
This is why several provinces are experimenting with portable-housing subsidies, which allow women to subsidize the rent of a place they find themselves. That's not always easy: Some landlords will turn away low-income tenants, and even with a subsidy, rents can be too high in cities such as Toronto or Vancouver. Research also shows that when housing costs force single moms farther from downtown cores, employment opportunities are narrowed by transit commutes and child-care options. Another policy option, being used in London, England, is to require condo developers to provide a certain percentage of subsidized units in new developments. Not only does this create units in better locations, it's also preferable to clumping low-income families together, as if they are a homogeneous social problem to be set outside the rest of middle-class society.
Social housing should exist in a well-designed system that recognizes the diversity of Canadians in need: people with disabilities, single moms who need employment and childcare, women escaping violence, homeless people struggling with complex health problems. In addition to the new money, the Liberals deserve credit for moving forward on a National Housing Strategy, a National Strategy to Address Gender-Based Violence and creating an Advisory Council on Homelessness. To be effective, all that "strategizing" needs to produce a comprehensive plan, and set clear goals, including gender balance.
Otherwise, women such as Maryam and Begoray are left to rely on lucky breaks. In Begoray's case, help came after a call to Robyn Spilker, the constituency assistant to MLA Rob Fleming in Victoria. Spilker connected Begoray with a non-profit that is helping her cover rent in a studio apartment that would take her dogs. She is now living there, scraping by on assistance, but covering her rent. She's been accepted into a government employment program and is looking for work. As of this week, she was still sleeping on the floor, but on the hunt for a cheap mattress.