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Homeless shelters are more than a place to stay

Imagine yourself without a place to live. At homeless shelters all over the GTA and beyond, people are confronting this shocking change in their lives every day.

At the Yellow Brick House, a shelter for abused women and their families in York Region, executive director Lorris Herrenda tries to describe the changes in the life of someone who’s suddenly become homeless.

“It’s hard for people to imagine,” says Herrenda.

“Imagine it’s five o’clock in the afternoon and you’re leaving your job. You get in your car, if you have one, and you’re driving to a shelter because you can’t go home because your life is in danger.

“This is the state of life for the women who come to our shelter — they’re leaving everything behind, all their worldly possessions, everything they’ve worked for.”

Homelessness is a problem anywhere it happens, but in a city where sky-high real-estate values have made rents high and affordable housing scarce, it’s an ongoing crisis.

This is one of the common burdens shelters have to deal with while trying to address the very particular ne of abused women, or homeless youth, or members of First Nations communities.

When Distant Thunder arrived in Toronto from Montreal, homeless after losing his job, he entered the city’s intake system and bounced from shelter to hostel before hearing about Na-Me-Res, a First Nations shelter in midtown.

An Ojibwa, he thought it would be his best shot at starting over.

“If I want to do this,” he says, “(we have to) go back to the beginning.

I’m First Nations — let’s go with that.”

Steve Teekens, executive director at Na-Me-Res, says cultural programs are essential to the counselling process at the shelter, where clients aren’t just trying to find jobs or homes, but are dealing with the legacy of residential schools, physical and sexual abuse, and government policies that stole native children from their families.

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So Na-Me-Res has a tribal elder on site, and offers language classes in Cree and Ojibwa, sweat lodges, circles and fasting.

“The way to help heal those traumas from the past is to enrich them with our culture, to make them feel more whole again, proud of who they are.”

For youth who’ve found themselves homeless after family conflicts or trauma, entering the shelter system can be terrifying, even after whatever might have brought them there.

Our Place Peel is a shelter for youth ages 16-24, where executive director Christy Upshall and senior manager for Outreach and Residential Services Dani Mills take in clients who’ve never had to find a home or worry about how to pay rent.

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“We’re asking them to grow up very, very quickly,” says Upshall.

Keeping them in school is a priority, of course, but so is helping them find a new place to live. If counselling fails to find a place with either immediate or extended family, they have to teach them how to find a new home, how to pay for rent and living expenses, and how to maintain relationships with roommates and landlords.

More perhaps than any other group using the shelter system, young people rely on each other and the friendships they make in shelters and homeless programs to get through a difficult time in their lives.

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“Our staff do a phenomenal job of understanding the influence of peers,” says Mills. “If we were to ignore the influence of peer support we’d be doing a disservice.

The challenges with any group entering the shelter system can be immense. At Yellow Brick House, it begins with making women and their children feel safe from the moment they arrive.

Often arriving with only what they have on their backs, shelter workers rely on donations to provide new clothes, bedding and toiletries, and toys for children who’ve left theirs behind.

“The first 24 hours is about the sense of safety, the sense of warmth,” says Herrenda.

Clients can end up living in shelters for a year or more while trying to find new homes, utilizing services offered by networks of agencies across the GTA and the adjacent regions. United Way-affiliated agencies such as Yellow Brick House, Na-Me-Res and Our Place Peel rely on United Way not just for funding for programs, but for planning to deal with changes in government, social conditions and, most pressing of all, the ongoing shortage of housing.

At Na-Me-Res, lack of affordable housing has made the shelter go into the landlord business, and it has bought and renovated four houses around the city, with an eye out for more. Teekens points out there has been a crisis in First Nations housing since the ’30s, with multiple royal commissions on the subject.

The support of United Way — in many cases going back over decades — has allowed shelters to push to have their priorities acknowledged, as in Our Place Peel’s successful campaign to get the youth shelter system separated from the adult one, and to get a temporary youth shelter set up in Brampton.

At Na-Me-Res, it’s given clients like Distant Thunder the space to develop programs such as “Green Res” — an Earth Day campaign to get shelter residents out in nearby Nordheimer Ravine to clean up trash, which he’s hoping to take public one day.

“It’s a simple thing, just an hour out of your life.”

Now out of the shelter and living in his own place in Scarborough, Distant Thunder is grateful for the chance to start over again.

“I’m regrowing myself,” he says.

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