Sunday, February 12, 2017

Finding Shelter from the Wind Last Night

This challenge has caused me to pause and consider how far off poverty, and homelessness are my current life. What I have realized is that no one is that far away from living below the poverty line. While speaking with a service provider on Friday I asked, what causes people to walk through the doors of the Kenora District Services Board? She shared that there are hundreds of reasons people find themselves seeking support and assistance. Some common reasons she shared were barriers to employment like lack of education, unreliable employment like contract or odd job work, unavailable or unaffordable daycare, or medical reasons that prevent people from working. I questioned her example of medical reasons as I know the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) should be their access point. She shared that accessing ODSP can take anywhere from 6 - 12 months to kick in, leaving people with no other choices but to access any funds available through Ontario Works (OW).

If my circumstances were to change tomorrow and I needed assistance, Ontario Works would provide me with $330 for basic needs and $376 max for shelter. I did some research and the cheapest apartment I can find for rent is $775.00, plus hydro with no laundry in the building. Without the support of family or friends, or a couch to crash on, I would be left with no choice but to spend my night at our local Emergency Shelter. This isn't stretch from our reality as NeChee staff have shared that their are working members of our community who spent their nights at the shelter because of the unaffordable housing available in Kenora.

Last night I visited the shelter with the intention of spending the night. When I shared with others that I was planning on doing this I was met with concern; I was told that it was not safe, I would be putting myself in danger and I was likely to bring home bed bugs.

I arrived a few minutes after 9pm, although the doors opened at 8. What I was expecting to find: a brightly light room, a coffee pot, tables, maybe a TV, people sitting around talking or playing cards and a few people sleeping on mats in the corner. What I did find: a very clean, calm space, light with a few candles and lamps, smiling staff who greeted me kindly, large bathrooms with fresh towels, clean sleeping clothes with blankets and plastic covered mats and pillows.  Laundry machines working all night to give patrons something clean and dry to wear in the morning, separate areas for women and men to sleep, water and some sandwiches and muffins that had been donated earlier in the evening.

I shared with the staff that I was surprised to find everyone already asleep at 9:15, they replied "Sam, these people have been out walking around all day, they have been moving from place to place trying to find something to eat and somewhere warm to go where they won't be told to leave, when they get here they are exhausted". I knew what he was talking about, I knew how exhausted I felt from having faced only a small faction of the struggle they had faced all day long.

Earlier this week someone told me that homelessness and poverty are two different things, by staying the night at the shelter I was taking this challenge 'too far'. After spending just a few minutes on paper considering how close the poverty line is, and the simple math of realizing I would no longer be able to afford my home, never mind any home I truly do not see these two things as different.

During the few hours I spent at the shelter several patrons came in to find a space to sleep for the night. The women's side of the room began to fill up and I no longer felt it was appropriate for me to take the spot of someone who needed shelter from the wind and cold for the night. I am grateful to the NeChee staff who took the time to show me how the Emergency Shelter operates and for sharing their stories with me.

When this door unlocks at 8pm each night it opens safety, warmth and a place of belonging to so many people in our community:

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