No Vacancy: Homeless in Regina

Affordable housing hard to get

By Peter Mills, The Leader-Post October 8, 2011

It took a lot of tears and even more courage, but Darlene Shepherd was candid about being homeless in Regina.

“It’s not just about being homeless. There is mental and physical damage to us,” Shepherd said, crying. “I talk to people who try to help and it just seems like it’s just talk.”

She said she has been homeless since March, works part time and “takes it mostly day to day.” Sometimes she just needs a place to charge her cellphone.

Like most homeless people in Regina, she’s slept anywhere that is safe and safety can be rare.

Shepherd still has plenty of hope, but it’s not getting any easier. She admitted it’s “a big job to get people to realize” the scope of homelessness, regardless of how many stories one hears.

“We can get hurt and nobody cares,” she said. “Nobody cares if they find us dead.”

Sleeping under the moonlight in Victoria Park is a picturesque experience fit for a romantic evening. Such a moment is similar to the utopia Qaswar Ari dreamt about before moving to Regina from Pakistan two years ago.

“I couldn’t believe poverty could exist in Canada,” Ari said. “I’m from a developing country and it’s bad here.”

Not everyone sees the homeless people in Regina sleeping in bushes or parkades downtown.

It’s more common for Reginans to associate homelessness with Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton than in their own backyard.

“Regina’s not Toronto and (it’s) not Vancouver, but we have our own homelessness issue,” Joe Miller, executive director of Souls Harbour Rescue Mission, said. “My kids have started to identify (homeless people). They say, ‘That’s the guy that sleeps by the 7-Eleven.’ If they’re picking it up, they already know that there is an issue. It’s here and it’s growing.”

Tim Green moved to Regina because of the booming economy, unaware of the growing homelessness issue. Getting a decent job was relatively easy, Green said, but finding a place to live was excruciating.

“I had to reside at the Sally Anne (the Salvation Army Waterston House) for almost three months in order for me to be able to find a place,” he said.

It was the first time he ever had to use a homeless shelter.

“This is the worst place to be homeless,” he said. “When I came to Regina it was like a roadblock for me. I should have researched it out better.”

Green never did find a place on the rental market, but he moved into a friend’s house.

While he repeatedly said there are people worse off than him, paying monthly bills is a struggle for him and his roommate.

“I don’t know how we’re going to do it this month, but we’ll figure something out,” he said. “It’s the job. It’s the bills. It’s the rent. It’s trying to find ways to be heard.”

Comedian George Carlin was notorious for being heard and he didn’t like the term homelessness.

“I’ll tell you what they ought to do about homelessness: First thing, change the name of it,” Carlin said on stage. “It’s not homelessness, it’s houselessness. It’s houses these people need. A home is an abstract idea. A home is a setting. It’s a state of mind. These people need houses – physical, tangible structures.”

In Regina, finding an affordable house – or any other physical, tangible structure – is more difficult than in any other city in the country. Regina’s vacancy rate is less than one per cent.

However, Shepherd disagrees with Carlin.

“Homelessness doesn’t come from just not having a home,” she said. “People should be aware that everything that they have, we don’t.”

When living on the street, planning three or four months ahead of time seems impossible – glimpses of the future are usually a mirage. Many homeless people have to overcome complicated problems every day, like addictions and mental health, making long-term planning even more difficult. Marc Spooner, a professor at the University of Regina, said planning is so difficult for homeless people because society has put too much responsibility on individuals.

Since 2009, Spooner has been distributing a City of Regina Survival Guide he made to help homeless people find services in Regina.

“Think about your ability to think into the future and how much light you can cast,” Spooner said. “If you’re doing a degree or have a degree, you’re thinking in a four-or five-year plan. That’s some good long-term thinking. It’s not very easy to plan for the future when you don’t know where you’re sleeping the next night.

“We want long-term planning out of individuals who are in very unstable situations, but our government can’t even do it – where’s the long-term planning on the government’s side?”

That’s where Spooner agrees with Carlin.

“The vacancy rate is so low,” Spooner said. “I think we have to start taking collective responsibility and stop blaming individuals.”

He said homelessness should be handled similar to when veterans came back from war in droves.

“All the massive social housing happened after the war and that was because they didn’t put it on the individual,” he said “They respected the vets and they weren’t blaming them. There was wide government response to housing issues. ”

If you’re on any kind of social assistance, it is very difficult to afford stable housing in Regina, Spooner said.

The average one-bedroom apartment cost $742 a month in 2010.

For a full-time, minimumwage worker, the average one-bedroom apartment is more than 50 per cent of his wage. And with such a low vacancy rate, it’s common for any available apartments to cost well above average.

“(At non-profit Carmichael Outreach) I sit and talk with people who face the crisis of being homeless,” Green said. “A lot of common stories I’m hearing from people is that they were freshly kicked out of their places. The landlords have jacked the rent up. This is why you have places like the Salvation Army or Souls Harbour or any other homeless shelters full of people.”

Shepherd is one of the people telling such stories. In March, she was going to school at SIAST and staying in a house for $550 a month.

“It changed landlords, so (the new landlord) figured I had lots of money, I guess, (and) he jacked the rent up from $550 to $1,200,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do and my schooling was falling apart. Then I had to move out of there.”

She found an apartment in a sketchy downtown building, but it didn’t last long.

“(It) didn’t work out for me because it was a pretty harsh building,” she said. “I told the landlord, it’s either get hurt in this building or something else bad is going to happen here. I made the best of it for about six months or so.”

After six months of living in fear, Shepherd said she would “rather live on the street for free” and ended up sleeping in a bush behind Carmichael for “probably about a week.”

With people like Shepherd being forced on the street, vacancy rates at Regina’s shelters are nearly as bad as the market.

According to a 2010 Homelessness in Regina report, conducted for the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System Initiative (HIFIS), the average number of beds occupied on a daily basis rose by 44.5 per cent between 2008 and 2010.

Among the 19 shelter service providers using HIFIS, the average daily capacity was 92.9 per cent.

The report said the average person stayed 56 days in 2010.

The total number of people discharged was 3,164, but the vast majority – 83.7 per cent – had no place to go.

“I think this number tells a lot,” Spooner said. “It’s hard to plan their life out from a shelter.”

When Joey Reynolds moved to Regina, he quickly found a place to live, but he couldn’t afford the rent.

“The landlord was nice enough to let me stay there for a while,” Reynolds said.

But it didn’t take Reynolds long to become another homeless statistic – he was in the 83.7 per cent.

After he was kicked out of a $755 per month apartment, he ended up living at Souls Harbour.

He has been homeless since May and said he looks for rentals every day in the Regina Leader-Post.

In June, he said he lived “with absolutely nothing.” He found lots of people to help him, but, as of August, he was still homeless.

“Every night, I stay at the library until 9 p.m. and I’m wondering what to do,” he said. “I sat at Burger King last night and thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do now?'”

He said he stays at the detox as many nights as possible, but he hates resorting to such a place.

“They told me, ‘Joey, you can’t be sleeping here because this is not a shelter, it’s a drunk tank – you have to be intoxicated in order to stay here,'” he said.

“So you’re kind of forced to have a few drinks or find something in order to get in there. Drink a bottle of Listerine or something like that in order to get in there. You’re just happy to have a roof over your head.”

He said it’s also common for homeless people to fake an illness at night and sit at the hospital for several hours.

He said he’s ashamed of such behaviour, but it’s needed to survive on Regina’s streets.

“You have to do these little certain things to get a roof over your head, especially if it’s winter,” he said. “You can also get thrown in jail in order to have a place to stay. I know people that did a crime in order to have three squares and a cot. Smash a window at a (hotel) and you’re guaranteed to have a place to stay and three square (meals).”

People sleeping in bushes will not be seen on an I Love Regina billboard.

“There’s an attitude from people who have homes that you’re – I hate to say the word – s—,” Shepherd said. “Even if you go into stores, or any place, or just to sit and rest, you’re looked at.”

Attitudes toward homeless people are often uninformed, rude, judgmental, abusive and racist.

“Poor bashing and stereotyping is very bad here in Saskatchewan and Regina,” Reynolds said. “I think if God himself took away racism, there would still be classism.

“It’s between the rich and the poor and we have to deal with that.”

Shepherd said being treated like dirt adds to depression and worsens addictions.

“There are so many issues that, in the daytime, are hard to deal with,” she said. “You have to show (taxi drivers) your money before you do anything. You kind of get used to that.”

Shepherd said she is treated rudely at convenience stores, even to the point where a stranger stood up for her in line.

“I can see it because I deal with it on a daily basis. I get kicked out of the library, the bus depot, wherever.”

About one in 11 people in Canada live in poverty, according to a 2011 report from the Salvation Army. When asked why people are homeless, the report said, “43 per cent of Canadians agree that ‘a good work ethic is all you need to escape poverty,’ while 41 per cent believe the poor would ‘take advantage’ of any assistance given to them and ‘do nothing.’ ”

According to the same report, more than one-quarter of Canadians say the poor have “lower moral values.”

Shepherd and Reynolds said even welfare and shelter employees treat them poorly.

“They say, ‘Well, I used to be homeless,’ ” Shepherd said. “Yeah, but you didn’t have to deal with anything else that street people deal with. They say, ‘I’ve been there and I’ve been abused.’ Yeah, you drank, but you didn’t drink every day until the issues you had went away.”

Even the friends she stays with from night to night abuse her.

“It’s becoming an issue with (a friend),” she said. “I go and eat there and he gets pissed off saying, ‘I suppose you want to eat?’ It’s becoming nasty. I’ll say, ‘OK, I’m going to go to Carmichael and work for my food.'”

Spooner said such attitudes are exactly what Peggy McIntosh called “invisible privileges” in her 1988 essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

Essentially, invisible privileges are things white people – in this case, with a home – don’t have to worry about. It also goes back to planning your life day to day, Spooner said.

“Even if the vacancy rate is this low, you could probably find a place,” he said. “So it’s another way we can blame the individual: ‘Look, I did it. Why can’t you do it?’ They don’t have that invisible knapsack of privileges that you carry around and aren’t necessarily aware of.”

With so much negativity on a daily basis, perhaps nobody is more ashamed of homelessness than the homeless themselves.

“(It’s) one of the first things I discovered,” Spooner said. “If you ask anybody: Are you homeless? No one says yes. They won’t. But if you ask them, ‘How long have you been coming to Carmichael?’ They might say, ‘Oh, five years.’ ”

According to the Salvation Army study, people still want to help. The report shows 89 per cent of Canadians agree that people in poverty deserve a helping hand.

“What keeps me going is people that take me in and give me a little bit of hope – a little bit of care,” Shepherd said with tears in her eyes. “The things that are taken advantage of are so important. They don’t condemn me anymore.”

Early this summer, Shepherd chose to sleep in a park for two nights because she was tired of living with abusive drug addicts and alcoholics. However, the park didn’t protect her.

“I just about got raped,” Shepherd said, crying. “These guys stole my coolers and I had $70 in my bag and they tried taking the bag.”

She worries that being homeless makes her extremely vulnerable.

“They see me out there every day (and) I’m always alone,” she said.

“What if I disappear? What if some crazy person targets me because I’m alone?”

Some nights, Shepherd sleeps in overcrowded, unsafe and unsanitary houses with friends. Despite the terrible living conditions, she said she frequently has to do “anything” to have a roof over her head.

“(People) will use you,” she said. “I’ve been beat up because I didn’t want to do some stuff. And sexually, too – they will try to take advantage of you. You have to sleep with them and you don’t like what you’re doing.”

She said there is a fine line to crossing into things like prostitution.

“I’ve done a lot of things when I was younger, but it (took) a lot of energy to be OK with life,” she said. “This is something where I think, ‘If I put a (few) drinks into me I can deal with it.’ ”

She wants to see people, including herself, sober and kick their addictions.

“It’s really hard to stay with other people who aren’t stable or (are using) drugs,” she said. “If you’re really trying to put your life together, it’s more difficult because you get into situations where you have to kind of kiss ass. If you have $20, they’ll say, ‘Bring some booze home and some cigarettes.’ ”

Reynolds has the same experiences when couch surfing. He said friends and family verbally abuse him, which pushes him further into addictions.

“I hate staying at these places because they have their own addictions and they get violent when they’re drinking,” Reynolds said. “I’m trying to stay off the bottle, but, at the same time, trying to stay with them. So you have to put up with their bulls—- yelling and screaming and stuff like that – and you don’t feel safe. You don’t know if they’re going to attack you or want to fight you.

“You just pray for the morning that they sober up and you can leave.”

For Shepherd and many homeless women, even the most dangerous options are considered for survival.

“Where am I going to get my money from?’ she said, crying. “I could go and hook or do whatever. But I couldn’t go way beyond that because it’s too dangerous.

“It’s kind of hard to even keep trying some days. So I get drunk. It’s lose it or get drunk. You can’t fight the system. You can’t.”

There is no Band-Aid solution that will end homelessness in Regina. A lot of homeless people say Regina’s shelters do good work, but much more is needed.

“(Shelters) are being asked to do something they’re not designed for and that’s to solve housing and homelessness,” Spooner said. “They should be very temporary and that’s not really happening.”

Homelessness costs the federal government billions of dollars per year. Spooner suggested the federal or provincial government track 200 people from the time they enter a shelter until they find a stable home.

“Track them after six months and then after a year or two,” he said. “Then we’d know how the system is really working. If we’re finding stable housing for these people, then it’s working.”

Shepherd suggested the same idea.

“Find more street people and talk to them about their issues,” she said. “We’re not addressing what needs to be addressed on the ground level.”

For most homeless people, a longterm plan is desperately needed. However, every day spent house hunting and every night sacrificing safety for sleep feels like an eternity.

Reynolds was distraught when talking about a way to help homeless people in Regina. He wants to improve his life, but he’s not sure if there is a way out of homelessness.

“I don’t know. I don’t know,” he said rubbing his face. “To tell you the truth, nothing can really help.

“What do you really do about changing people’s attitudes? (People) could do without the poor – wean them out.”

The most significant problem for homeless people is debatable, but the inability to find a home has left many of them feeling anonymous to the public and constantly in danger. Shepherd said she doesn’t know what “category” she fits into.

When it comes to responding to the critical homelessness dilemma that exists in Regina, Shepherd said sympathy and understanding could be the answer – if it’s followed by action.

“The system is turning so greedy and we’re not seeing the really poor people,” she said.

“We’re humans just like everybody else. We’re not stray dogs to be kicked around. There are a lot of people who can make something with their lives.”

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