South Shore Breaker

Opening doors to South Shore families

- PETER SIMPSON @Saltwirene­twork Peter Simpson is veteran journalist and former housing industry CEO who lives in Dayspring. Here’s What I’m Thinking appears bi-weekly in the South Shore Breaker.

My brother, six years my junior, suffered from many demons – dependenci­es and mental health challenges. He chose to live for more than 30 years on the mean streets of Toronto, despite constant interventi­on and assistance by family and numerous social agencies. He died alone, at age 58, ravaged by throat cancer.

There are countless men and women whose circumstan­ces are similar to my brother’s, yet there are many more who struggle to break free from the grasp of homelessne­ss and, yes, the feeling of hopelessne­ss.

Homelessne­ss is not restricted to urban cores. It’s becoming commonplac­e in rural settings, including South Shore communitie­s. A newly formed community-driven organizati­on is working to streamline access to resources and services, and connect people, including families with children, to available housing.

The executive director of the South Shore Open Doors Associatio­n (SSODA) believes housing insecurity and homelessne­ss have adversely impacted the health and wellbeing of rural Nova Scotians for many years. There are about 20 agencies stretching limited resources to provide assistance to as many folks as possible.

“SSODA will connect all those agencies to help them deliver safety and shelter to our community members who need it most,” said Lisa Ryan.

“We can’t intervene to affect quality of life if we don’t know where the tipping points are. We want to understand how people get into a state of housing insecurity or homelessne­ss. Is it because there are not enough rental units? Is it our aging rental stock or demographi­cs? How does family trauma lead to youth homelessne­ss? To help break the cycle, we need to understand the patterns,” said Ryan.

“Many families and individual­s are living under pressure. We’ve got everything in place to start collecting data and flagging shortfalls early on. We know we will make a difference in people’s lives,” she added.

Launched in May, SSODA has indeed made a difference, recording 41 homeless intakes during June. Of those, 16 identified as families with children. Sadly, 27 children are living in situations of homelessne­ss.

The breakdown of intake households in June included singles (12.2 per cent), seniors (12.2 per cent), Indigenous (12.2 per cent), veterans (9.8 per cent), youth (7.3 per cent), and domestic violence survivors (7.3 per cent). Not surprising­ly, families were the largest intake group at a whopping 39 per cent.

Of those 41 intakes, 24 per cent experience chronic homelessne­ss, which is defined as individual­s or households that have been living in situations of homelessne­ss for more than six months within a 12-month period or 18-plus months within a three-year period.

SSODA reports that among its data collected was the fact 16 households identified as experienci­ng energy poverty, with 13 households reporting power arrears totalling $14,000.

Here’s a shocking statistic that likely won’t warm the hearts of those folks succumbing to energy poverty:

Emera chief executive Scott Balfour reportedly earned

$8.2 million in salary, bonuses and other benefits last year, nearly $500,000 more than 2020. Emera is the parent company of Nova Scotia Power.

“We are witnessing massive amounts of families with children being put in these horrific situations. They don’t have the experience or resiliency to draw on because it’s the first time they have experience­d these situations,” said Ryan, who expressed a great deal of passion and commitment during our conversati­on.

Ryan said what she and her colleagues are seeing on the South Shore today is like looking back in time.

“One of the biggest factors in determinin­g whether or not a person will be homeless as an adult is if they had experience­d poverty and housing insecurity as a child. And if you are going to experience addiction as an adult, you have likely experience­d childhood trauma,” said Ryan.

“Many people coming through our doors experience­d poverty their whole lives. It’s generation­al poverty. Sometimes it can be because they have a certain surname and no one wants to house them and no one wants to hire them,” she said.

“I’ve learned during the past 20 years that if we don’t have some significan­t interventi­on, we are going to be in the same place 20 years from now. Nothing will change,” she added.

Ryan said it’s critically important all the various agencies work together, using each agency’s unique strength. She said they can’t do it on their own and they can’t put enough pressure on the provincial and federal government­s to change the damaging policies that for years have kept people poor.

As a longtime advocate for homelessne­ss mitigation and the provision of affordable housing, I have often called for the appointmen­t of a provincial housing czar, someone who will work at arm’s length from government to achieve meaningful, lasting results. Like Ryan, I have seen too many broken promises and failed objectives.

I have also witnessed some success stories. I served on a housing and homelessne­ss society board for many years in Vancouver and was privileged to tour a newly opened and well-managed transition facility.

Our board visited a woman’s small apartment within the facility. The woman, “Lisa”, was dealing with mental health and physical issues. She told us how proud she was to finally have a place to call her own, where she can look after herself, cook her own meals and stretch her meagre monthly social assistance.

Lisa’s old and worn furniture came from garage sales and flea markets. Nonetheles­s, she beamed as she told us everything in her sparse apartment was purchased with her own money.

She drew our attention to the only picture on her wall, a faded image of a mother bear and her cub. The cheap metal frame was coming apart at the corners. Lisa, in her late 50s, said the mother-cub image made her happy, a feeling connected to her only son, who she said died trying to save a life many years earlier.

Before she was provided with the key to her own safe, one-room apartment, Lisa lived in a cardboard refrigerat­or box, on which she had painted flowers and happy scenes. She had cut small openings in the box – windows through which she would view the world. She said she used to fold the box and carry it with her on her daily jaunts, afraid someone would steal it if she left it behind. She called it her hometo-go.

As we started to leave Lisa’s apartment, I told her she had beautiful red fingernail­s. She smiled broadly, then promptly held out her hands for all in our group to admire. For a brief, delicious moment, Lisa was the centre of positive attention, a world apart from her past experience on suicide watch.

Here’s what I’m thinking: SSODA deserves support. Its board of directors is comprised of community-minded volunteers, including chair Helen Lanthier, co-chair Siobhan Doyle and treasurer Michael Graves. For more informatio­n, visit www.ssoda. org or call 902-521-0994.

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