A billboard promising new townhouses stretches across an empty field at Kingston and Galloway Roads. Along the Kingston motel strip, a non-descript grey building is surrounded by used car dealerships. A school bus pulls up in front of the building. An excited boy runs outside.
This is Family Residence, a city-run shelter housing more than 50 families. Behind the fence is Idlewood Inn, rented by the city when the shelter is full.
Paying a weekly rate of less than $300, some lodgers stay for months, says motel manager Lisa Fritz.
Fritz often becomes attached to those who stay, she says. Some even call her “mom.” She also acts as counsellor and mediates disputes between residents.
She would like to see more families stay at Idlewood. “They need a place to stay and we have the facilities.”
Scarborough residents are more aware of the need for social services to help the homeless in the suburbs, says Pastor Bruce Ervin, president of the Scarborough Interfaith Affordable Housing Association. Ervin is also head pastor at Knox United Church where the Out of the Cold program provides homeless people with shelter, a meal and a bus token.
“I remember an individual who had rented a storage locker,” he says. “He was using it for sleeping at night.”
Despite a growing awareness of homelessness in the suburbs, action seems to be lacking, Ervin says.
“People are beginning to wake up to the reality but somehow the social services haven’t fully caught up to that reality,” he says.
Although shelters are crowded, the first draft of the 2010 city budget reduced funding for affordable housing and homelessness programs by 7.6%, the Wellesley Institute reported. This drives the operating budget down to $854 million from $925 million last year, the institute noted.
“It’s nothing short of a catastrophe,” says Laura Sky, director and producer of Home Safe Toronto, a documentary on homelessness in Toronto. “The policy makers don’t go and visit family shelters, and go and visit homes where people are doubling and tripling up.”
Home Safe explored the lives of those without housing security or living in sub-par conditions.
The city’s 2006 Street Needs Assessment estimated there are 64 visibly homeless people in Scarborough, representing 8% of the total number of homeless in the city, although it acknowledged there may be more hidden homeless people.
Sky questions the survey’s method.
“We find that most of the homeless people we know are invisible, and it gives a false number,” she says.
In Scarborough, homelessness is “both hidden and evident at the same time,” Sky says. While there are shelters, like Family Residence, there are more homeless families than those staying there.
“You have people living in basements and doubling-up with family, and kids at school who nobody realizes are homeless,” she says.
When bills come due at the end of the month for house and apartment renters, the population rises at her motel where the weekly fates are cheap, Fritz notes.
Low-income families spend as much as 50 % of their income on housing, Ervin says.
“If there’s a slight rent increase, you’re suddenly not able to afford housing anymore,” Ervin says. “It’s a cyclical kind of thing. Poverty is a major cause of homelessness, and once you become homeless, you become even poorer and you find yourself spiraling further and further down into a hole.”
A United Way study found that between 1981 and 2001, family poverty shifted from the downtown core to the inner suburbs. In Scarborough, there was a 136.6 % increase in the number of poor families during this 20-year period, and the number of higher poverty neighbourhoods rose to 22 from four in 1981.
United Way hasn’t released an updated study since the recession. But Ervin has seen more people using the Out of the Cold program at his church, which can shelter up to 25 people.
“Our very first night, we had one person who stayed overnight,” he says. “Last winter, on the coldest nights, we had to go slightly over capacity.”
Housing as a human right
“Housing is an internationally recognized right,” Sky says. “Access to adequate and healthy food is a human right. People shouldn’t be deprived of either because they can’t find an economic space for themselves in our communities.”
Despite this, low-income families have trouble finding rental accommodations, says Dorothy Cook, manager at Gabriel Dumont Non-Profit Homes, which offers rent-geared-to-income housing for First Nation families.
“Not everybody, even under the Human Rights amendments, wants to rent to large families or people on social assistance,” she says.
There are often long wait-lists for affordable housing, sometimes taking years. However, social service information is not easily accessible.
“If you’re homeless, you don’t always have the money to go on a bus and get to a library,” Cook says. “We find that it is pretty much word of mouth when we have families looking for housing and rental accommodation.”
The government needs to take a more active role in solving homelessness, Sky says.
“People often say there is a lack of political will,” she says. “But I actually think it isn’t a lack of political will. When you don’t do something about a problem, that in itself is a policy. It’s not that there is no policy. It’s a policy of neglect.”
The systemic causes of homelessness need to be addressed, such as a lack of access to affordable housing and food and wages that keep people below the poverty line, Sky says.
“We need politicians who are going to make all these things a priority,” she says. The Scarborough Interfaith Affordable Housing Association plans to buy a house to rent to homeless people to tackle the local problem.
“When we began [the Out of the Cold program], we were clear this was simply a Band-Aid solution,” Ervin says. “What we really wanted to do over the long haul was to provide permanent housing for homeless folks.”
Although the group is looking for a house in Scarborough, it is still in its preliminary stages. And while the house will provide a roof for a select few, others will have to continue searching for a place to stay.
While homelessness in Scarborough may be invisible to most, it’s not for Fritz, who has seen many people come through her motel.
“At first, it was quite devastating,” Fritz says. “But you can’t help everyone. You do what you can.”Running the program for more than six years, Ervin has seen people in desperate situations.