Close to thirty people turned out at 500 Stephen Street Community Centre in Morden last Wednesday to talk about the concern of homelessness in the region. The meeting was organized by Many Hands Resource Centre (MHRC) which has seen the need first hand.
Open discussion on the sensitive topic took place in the circle with voices, ranging from representatives from organizations and services around the region, to City of Morden Mayor Brandon Burley and Economic Development Officer for the City of Morden Jason Dyck to homeless individuals sharing their story, looking for support and understanding.
Newly hired Community Mobilization Coordinator for 500 Stephen Street Community Centre, Nicole Fehr, works with individuals on mitigating crisis, and creating a stable future for them to be their best selves. She said homelessness is definitely a problem in the region, even though people may say it's not. It was clear from she heard around the circle on Wednesday homelessness is an issue in our region.
"We all have clients that are homeless. If you look up online what the definition of homelessness is, it's not living on the street, but it could be couch surfing, it could be at risk of homelessness, individuals that are in unhealthy situations that they just can't escape where they are right now, but would be better on the street, but due to our temperatures just can't be. And so, yeah, homelessness is absolutely an issue."
MHRC Executive Director Mariyam Tsygankova announced clearly, "The problem absolutely exists." She said it's heartbreaking, because you want to help, and those facing homelessess need more than a hamper of food, but you are helpless to do more. She said there is a misconception of who is homeless, saying before she came to Canada, she too, thought homeless people were only those with addictions who don't want to work, but she now knows it's different.
"They're smart, intelligent. They are just regular people who are just in a situation of need, and they don't know what to do. It wasn't their choice, it wasn't, and I cannot blame them. The only thing which I have in my mind, 'How can we help?' Not to judge, not to blame, not to ask questions, because it's just how can a person think about finding a job, if he doesn't have a bed to sleep this night. So, this is the basic need, and it is so important."
Central Community Homes Board Chair James Friesen said, in smaller rural communities, homelessness flies under the radar for most residents, because people are not seen sleeping on the street, but there are vulnerable individuals who are couch surfing, or under housed with only temporary stays like in hotels or other short-term places.
The topic of the 'hard to house' was discussed when addressing some of the reasons people are not able to find a place to live. Friesen shared why it's important to find homes for these individuals to live.
"A model that's defined as 'Housing First' says, 'If you give an individual a home first, a safe, affordable place to live, then the other issues can be dealt with.' To expect an individual to clean up their lives, in our definition, and then we'll give them housing, has not proven to be effective. It's okay for the landlord maybe, but as a community that wants to care for all of its members, and the most vulnerable, we really need to just get housing first, get people in place, and then wrap the services and supports around them."
Haidey Mousseau shared her story of homelessness with the circle. She left home at the age of 18, and moved in with her boyfriend. They were together for ten years, having five children together. She left her partner after their children were put in foster care two years ago, due to drinking.
"My auntie took me in here in Morden, and I got into drinking, bad, and then I went to treatment, and got my two oldest boys back. That was in November. The main thing is just the housing, to be with all of my kids, because I have kids that are in foster care right now."
Now, Mousseau's only barrier is finding a house big enough for her and all her children to live in. She has put in between 10-20 applications over the last 2 years, and is still waiting for a place.
"If I was to have a house, I would be beyond grateful, beyond blessed, I will take care of it like I take care of my auntie's place. I wouldn't abuse it."
Holly Alston is an advocate with Jordan's Principle (JP) for her client, Lori. According to the JP website, its purpose is to make sure all First Nations children living in Canada can access the products, services and supports they need, when they need them.
Lori is living in 55+ housing with her grandson. She lives with the fear of eviction.
"It would be just wonderful if we could have our own little place, me and Patrick. I'm just hoping, and wishing, for our own place, for Patrick especially, he needs a place because he's in a wheelchair."
Alston said there is no accessible housing through Manitoba Housing in Morden.
She heard from a realtor in the circle, landlords are looking for "good renters" noting they have exhausted every effort to keep Lori and Patrick in Morden where Lori is able to work in a job helping others. She said renting privately has been difficult, as landlords can refuse anyone for any reason, adding it can just be by looks, and no other criteria, noting applicants are often not given a reason.
"My family are good renters." Alston said earnestly, "They're loving, they're kind and supportive. They just want to be able to not live in constant fear of being evicted. It's hard when you think, 'I could be evicted tomorrow, and there is no other option.' They would have to make those hard choices. Do they move somewhere else? Do they split up? I'm really appreciative there is this large group in Morden meeting, and trying to solve this problem."
Morden Mayor Brandon Burley said, as a community, we want to be here for people on their best days to celebrate, but also to support them on their worst days.
"We want to see people be able to fail and succeed right here and be supported. Whether that requires grace, or whether that requires us to celebrate, that's the community we want. That's the community I work for and toward, and I think that is the definition that we want to embrace as the city of Morden. We want to be a place that supports and upholds each other. We've got some work to do. We've got some meetings to have, and then we've got to figure out a solution to this situation, because the message today was quite clear from people on the front line of this, there is a real issue, and they were able to substantiate their concern."
Burley noted the city is trying to address accessible and affordable housing in Morden, but explained some gaps in programming such as the Homebuyer Assistance Program recently offering a $15,000 down payment to first time home buyers saw 16 applicants with only four qualifying, meaning another round of applications will go out this Spring. While grateful for the program, the limiting factor is the value of the homes available in Morden don't match the criteria of the application.
Morden Community Development Corporation Economic Development Officer Jason Dyck reiterated his disappointment in the inability see more of the applicants succeed. He encouraged people to attend the affordable housing presentation March 14th at 9am at the next Committee of the Whole meeting.
"The issue is something I think takes a full community to support, and that the city's efforts alone will not be enough to address something far broader than a municipal government can take on its shoulders. In order to really have an impact, we need to all community members to come out, and to volunteer and to connect with their local nonprofits to see how they can have an impact on this very crucial question."
Darcy Wolfe, a board member for MHRC wrapped up the day.
"There is a problem with homelessness in Morden. It's bigger and more urgent than I think a lot of people in the community realize. Sitting around the group we had together today, I think we heard a lot of really heartbreaking stories, a lot of surprising statistics, and I think it's something that our community needs to really think about, really work on, and I feel like Morden can do it. I was really encouraged by some of the responses, and I could hear the heart of a lot of the people that we're talking. I really hope we can come around this issue as a community, and help the people that need help in our city."