Muskoka's secret homelessness...
Muskoka's secret homelessness is a rural problem
GRAVENHURST - There is poverty of pocket and poverty of soul; Gravenhurst’s Roxane McDonald is doing her best to keep them apart.
Muskoka's secret homelessness is a rural problem.
HOME SWEET HOME. Lake Muskoka – the heart of cottage country, dripping affluence and home to Millionaire’s Row – is also host to the homeless and the fastest increasing incidents of social assistance needs in the province. Gravenhurst’s Roxane McDonald, whose home is her station wagon, hopes the trends will change despite austerity budgets. (Photo by Neil Etienne)
“Some days it is hard not to worry, but I am holding my chin up still,” McDonald said. “One day I will be sitting on my front porch laughing about this experience.”
“I truly hope all this will make things better for others,” she adds.
Gravenhurst born and raised, a former business owner, hospital treasurer, fundraiser, published author and, still, a stalwart volunteer who’s trying to return to school, McDonald has plenty to be proud of and look forward to. She says it’s hard to do that sometimes when the world is seen through the humid night steam or winter-frosted windshield of her late-model Ford Focus — her home for most of the past year.
“It is getting harder to keep my humour but I’m not going to give up. I have to believe there’s something better for all of us,” she said.
For a year now, save on a few separate occasions when she’s been in emergency social housing, McDonald, 45 and single mother of two, has been homeless. For the month of September, she has a friend who is giving up a couch, but is once again facing the reality of the streets.
Meanwhile, despite the ominous truth, she has successfully landed her first gig as a stand-up comedian and is trying to get funding approval to go back to school.
“If I got get approval, it would be six months back at school then right into the workforce, it seems like such a small thing to want,” McDonald said, adding, however, there’s always a rub.
“Because I’m on ODSP (disability for a severely injured knee she had operated last year) and not welfare, it’s harder to get approval and I can’t get on welfare because I don’t have an address,” she explained. “The system has a way of trapping you in and all I want is the education to get out.”
For those who operate the system, let alone those in it, that horizon of hope is also hard to find, particularly in a time of austerity budgets.
“All of the province’s funding is going to be difficult this (coming) year,” said Rick Williams, commissioner of community services for the District of Muskoka. “There’s nothing good on the horizon from our point of view.”
During the week of Aug. 30, an organization called Ontario Common Front presented a major report called Falling Behind in the Ontario Legislature. That report reveals Ontario is lagging behind all of Canada in social programming support and is the worst when it comes to growing poverty and social program cuts. Although the highest population of any province in Canada, Ontario is spending less than $8,900 per capita on social programming, trailing Nova Scotia and B.C. by about $1,000 per person as the lowest in the country. Newfoundland is top of the list, spending approximately $13,000 per person for 2011-12.
Sandra Beausoleil, program information manager with Muskoka Community Services, explained for the District of Muskoka as a whole, there are about 1,000 families supported through Ontario Works and another 1,800 through ODSP, which she said adds up to about 4,800 people.
She added the district operates between 800 and 900 social housing units in addition to the emergency housing. She said the problem is that the social housing waiting list is substantial at almost 650 families in wait.
“And the wait times were two to five years; I would say it’s even longer than that,” she said.
She added definitive statistics on Muskoka homelessness are difficult to come by and generate, but it does appear there is a substantial number of people who become homeless at least temporarily each year.
“I don’t think it’s reflective (statistics on homelessness), I think a lot of it is hidden and we know that couch-surfing is huge,” she said.
And where are those more than 600 families while on the waiting list?
“It’s a guess; they might be homeless, they might be living with relatives or friends, they might be paying a rent that’s over what they can manage and incurring quite a bit of debt,” Beausoleil said, adding the hope for the district is to add about 30 more units in the next two to three years across the region. “Approximately five per cent of them are without a permanent address at one time in the year.”
McDonald says she is not alone on Gravenhurst’s streets and thinks Bracebridge and Huntsville host their own homeless population.
“I know of at least six or seven other homeless people with me in Gravenhurst,” she said. “I’ve met some from Bracebridge too, so I know they are out there with me, they just have found ways to keep hidden.”
“It’s really not something a lot of people are proud of or like to show off,” she added.
Statistics from earlier this spring showed in terms of general social assistance demands, Muskoka showed some of the higher incidents of growth in Ontario. In Muskoka, Gravenhurst showed the highest increases year-over-year and represented about 30 per cent of the district’s entire caseload.
“We’ve grown every year for six years,” Williams said, with Beausoleil adding since July 2007, the district’s entire social assistance case demands have grown 91 per cent in total. “We’ve been highest in the province in terms of our percentage growth.”
Beausoleil said $15 million is spent annually in Muskoka for Ontario Works (both provincial and municipal dollars) and about $25 million (provincially funded) is spent annually in the district for Ontario Disability Support Program. She said based on what is known about homelessness regionally, the district is already spending about $2 million a year on the issue alone.
“It’s (homelessness) not new; how it presents itself in rural areas tends to be that people are displaced from their housing, often through conflict, and need a temporary accommodation,” Williams said.
That often ends up being a friend with a couch, he added. “It’s not so much people living on the streets like you might see in Toronto, but it is under-housing and people having to live with friends or family for support.”
McDonald will account for some of that $2 million this year. Twice since this past January she has been permitted into emergency housing, the second time following the first story the Gravenhurst Banner ran on her situation. She said for September, she’s couch-surfing, but is going to need to be back out, wherever, shortly.
“I can’t worry about tomorrow today,” she said. “Today I have a bed.”
She counts herself lucky in that regard.
“A lot of the people out there with me don’t have a car like I do, or they’re addicted or ill and I don’t have to worry about that,” McDonald said.
One of the problems McDonald faces is that while she has children, they are essentially of adult age and live with friends. If she were a young mother with young children, access to affordable housing would be slightly easier to come by.
“The group within the homeless that is of particular concern to us tends to be families with young children and typically that’s a single female with children,” Williams explained, adding places such as Interval House in Bracebridge are one way to address that specific group.
“If you’re a single mom and you’re homeless, we will help you, we will go through hell for you and we will do anything we can for you; the rest of the group tends to be very hard to track and elusive,” he said.
Requests for emergency housing have jumped from an average of about 200 per year to more than 400 in the last five years, said Williams. “The trends are proving that Gravenhurst would have a high incident of those requests as well and as you move north toward Huntsville, the ratio of incidents would decrease.”
He said the district provides emergency housing throughout Muskoka and has a list of about a dozen apartments to turn to in dire situations. If those are full, the district then has contracts with several local hotels to provide emergency bedding.
“There is probably about three or four of those in use at any given time for families that are in transition,” he said. They are temporary, he added, but meant to help people wait for permanent housing to become available or for emergency housing. Beyond that the district also contracts to shelters in North Bay or Barrie for emergency housing with free transportation provided by the district.
Williams said that the system can be very responsive to some, while because of lack of funding, priorities mean others may not get the help they need.
Pressures on families are increasing for many reasons he said, including gas, housing, child care and food costs. Locally, he said there is a trend for younger families to fracture, and loss of manufacturing and year-round industrial jobs has increased youth unemployment. Williams said individuals on social assistance get about $700 a month while couples get about $1,000, putting incredible pressure on those to live on Muskoka rental costs.
“For example, a lot of young guys have lost their jobs in Muskoka and families become indirect victims of that,” Williams added. “Suddenly there’s a woman with children who is vulnerable and doesn’t have the money to maintain (a household).”
Williams said another group that is finding increasing pressure to maintain homes are those who are too young to retire, but find themselves approaching that age, without a job, without benefits and without a lot of opportunity or time to retrain.
“Or suddenly they’re ill, their income goes down and their expenses go up considerably and can’t pay rent, utilities,” he said. “That pocket (age group) just seems to be seeing infinite growth (with poverty).”
MPP Norm Miller was on hand for the Falling Behind report release and said in light of budget cutting and austerity, homelessness is a difficult problem to handle. He added the McGuinty government’s poverty reduction strategy “has been a complete failure” and hopes new recommendations coming from Tory MPP Toby Barrett in the fall will address some of the problems.
“There’s so many factors and facets to homelessness and there are real problems in the system,” he said. “We have to get people working again, but it’s not enough, we have to give skills to the people who need work and frankly there is an opportunity to get those skills to the people.”
He said while only draft, one of Barrett’s recommendations will be that people on ODSP or social assistance be permitted to earn more without losing the supporting benefit and get easier to access continuing education funding. MPP Miller is also part of a job creation task force that should be releasing a report in the fall as well.
McDonald said in the meantime she’s doing what she can to put the situation behind her. Insurance and gasoline costs are threatening her ability to maintain her “home” as she also tries to squirrel away pennies for schooling, but she did get herself on the list for Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club on Queen’s Street in Toronto through the help of friends and is waiting her first chance to jump on stage for Tuesday-night amateur hours. Her story has also caught the attention of other media, and on Sept. 24 at both 1 and 7 p.m. she will be featured on online radio as a guest of host Saskia Jennings through www.creatingbeingwell.com.