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Thought experiment time.
You’re renting an apartment. You’ve lived in this town your whole life and you’ve been in your home for a couple years. You feel stable, you have strong relationships with your family and friends, and your job, though not a career you’d pick for yourself, provides a consistent paycheque, though in winters the hours are more scarce.
How many months could you keep your apartment if you lost your job, through no fault of your own? How much savings do you have to live on? How long before you have to sell things, including the car that should be helping you find a new job? Would Employment Insurance kick in before you were behind in rent? Imagine you lost your government identification – that adds a few weeks to the process. Is that long enough to make a real mess of things?
Your landlord gives you notice due to nonpayment while you’re searching desperately for a new job, and your friends are doing their best to support you, giving you a bit of cash and sending you apartment listings and job offers. You have two months to find an apartment in town, you don’t have first and last months rent or an income, and your former place of employment is giving you the runaround about your Record of Employment, further delaying the EI process.
When you’re looking for an apartment, you realize how good you’d had it at your current rental, because local listings, when there are any, can run $1200 for a one-bedroom. You become aware that you’ll be downsizing from an apartment to a room for rent, for a much more affordable $750. Affordable, that is, only if your EI comes through or you can find a job in your field. Ontario Works payments are about $700 – that won’t even cover rent, but you apply because you have to and they’ll help you pay for the government ID you need to process your EI, get another job, and find a rental.
Time’s up on the apartment, but your best friend has a couch. Your mom, who lives in Toronto, helps you pay for a storage unit for your things. Your friends help you move and you hated to ask because you know they want to help but their homes are full of their loved ones and they feel just as guilty for not being able to offer you space as you would feel if you accepted it.
How long would your friends let you stay on their couch? How many friends do you have? Most people would let their friends crash for a week or so. How many weeks does that buy you?
Your OW payment goes to your other bills, feeding yourself, and trying to pay back your friends a bit for how they’ve supported you. You start to notice you don’t have as many people answering your texts as you used to. You start to experience profound fear.
EI comes through, OW disappears. You’ve got a bit more income, but can’t find an apartment. You’re calling, viewing, applying, but no one’s calling you back. You think maybe your landlord shared with others about how you weren’t able to pay and now you’re on the blacklist. The friend you’re staying with, the one with the softest heart, starts asking you when you think you’ll be able to move out. Your presence is disrupting the house and their partner isn’t a fan of supporting someone they don’t know that well.
You’re asked to leave.
You have a steady enough income though EI and you’re putting away a bit for rent. You get a hotel for the night because you just need a break. You haven’t been alone for weeks but you’ve never felt so isolated. Everyone has suggestions but there are barriers everywhere you turn.
Do you have any mental health issues? Have you ever struggled with addiction? They are flaring up now – you’re in crisis. You call your mom, crying, drunk, and she tells you to call the women’s shelter.
The next day, you go. It isn’t what you expected – not a regimented barracks but rather like a large home. The staff regretfully tell you they don’t have space for homeless women, only women fleeing abuse. Keep checking in, they say. It can change at any time. They refer you to District of Muskoka housing department, and you leave a message.
The shelter gives you two more nights in a hotel. Then the District gives you two. Then the OPP give you two. Each phone call erodes your dignity and you can’t stop thinking about the way you used to live, what you took for granted. If you still had your car, you’d be sleeping in it, despite the sub-zero temperatures – but you don’t.
You get a response from your Kijiji ad seeking a room for rent. You check the place out. It’s small, probably a den converted into a bedroom – no windows. The guy is a creep but he works a lot and won’t be around much during the day. You decide to take it. Your belongings are down to a backpack, a cardbox box, and a garbage bag.
The guy you’re now renting from offers for you to stay there for free in exchange for sex. You’d hoped it wouldn’t go there, but you’d feared it would. You decline.
He forces the issue, doesn’t care about your ‘no.’
You leave your cardboard box and garbage bag and walk to the women’s shelter with just your backpack. Now you meet their abuse mandate. Now there is space.
You have three months.
The question I want to pose to you isn’t actually, “What would you do?” I work in a shelter and I know as well as anyone how quickly things fall apart. There is no homeless shelter for men in Huntsville right now – there’s a hostel, or a bus ticket to Orillia or North Bay. The women’s shelters turn people away due to being at or over capacity. Women come in, dazed – how did it get to this?
My question actually is, “Why is it like this?” and more importantly, “How do we fix this?”
All the failures along the way, all the injustices, all the people who wanted to help but didn’t have the money, energy, capacity, or resources. Red tape, duplication of services, budget cuts, hands tied. So many cracks to slip through.
On January 19th, Women’s March Muskoka (WMM) will be taking to the streets in Huntsville to march. As the Community Connector, it’s my responsibility to try to support cohesion between existing agencies and bridge some of the gaps, knowing we are all fighting to the end goal of justice for all. WMM is a fledgling volunteer-run group and we need volunteers. We march because homelessness is a women’s issue. Because poverty is a women’s issue. Discrimination, job insecurity, abuse and sexual assault, these are issues that disproportionately impact women either in terms of numbers (women experience higher statistical instances of them) or in impact (homelessness for men rarely means rape; for women, it is almost inevitable).
All people, of all walks, will march on January 19th to try to bring attention to the stigmatized and swept-under issues in our community. Be present, be counted, let us know that you care, that you know a new way is possible, is necessary. Bring your imagination, bring your better-world scenarios. Let’s co-create.
The march is for each of us. Even if you don’t need it right now, the march is for you.
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Kathleen May is a writer, speaker, and activist. Her work in our community includes co-founding the long-running Huntsville Women’s Group, being a Survivor Mentor in the pilot survivor-to-survivor program through MPSSAS, co-facilitating instinct-unlocking workshops for women through I Got This, working as a host and community producer of Herstories on YourTV, volunteering with Women’s March Muskoka, and her role as a front-line counsellor at a women’s shelter. Kathleen is a 2018 Woman of Distinction for Social Activism and Community Development and also received the Best Author award for her 2018 submission at the Muskoka Novel Marathon, a fundraiser for literacy services. Her dream is a sustainable women’s land co-operative in Muskoka.