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Hamilton women looking to come in from the cold

By Kevin Werner • Metroland West Media Group

Any person is a lost job, a bad marriage, or a catastrophic illness away from slipping into homelessness.

But as Hamilton-area poverty activists reinforced at last week’s Hope in Homes National Housing Day event at the Waterfront Banquet Centre, it’s mothers, wives and sisters who are the most vulnerable group seeking a place to live.

“This is a call of action out of shear frustration,” said Katherine Kalinowski, assistant executive director for the Programs for Good Shepherd. “There is no new research. There is no new novel approach. What we have is a crisis.”

Glenna Harris, 51, is part of that crisis. She describes herself as a survivor in more ways than one. Two broken marriages, which included violence, three heart attacks, cervical cancer, a nervous breakdown, who now copes with arthritis, she is currently living on a couch at a friend’s place and seeking permanent housing.

After her second husband left her for another woman, she couldn’t pay the rent for the apartment she lived in. Her son, who is developmentally challenged, moved in to help her out, but he was sent to jail in 2011 after a drug conviction, forcing Harris out of her apartment.

She has been on a waiting list for transition housing for three years, and she is hoping to get Ontario Disability Support Program help.

“I’m a survivor in every sense of the word,” she told the 90 people at the day-long event Nov. 22. “I want to live. Giving up is not an option.
She questions why there are so many homes empty in Hamilton, while people such as herself are living day to day, and depending upon food banks, and the kindness of friends and family.

“We are not looking for a hand out,” she said. “We are looking for a hand up.”

The number of females homeless remains elusive for homelessness advocates. But the anecdotal evidence is staggering. In Hamilton there are 134 shelter beds for women, and all of them are filled. In October, Mary’s Place, a women’s shelter, turned away 75 women. Across Hamilton, an estimated 300 women have been turned away each month from shelters because they are packed.

There are about 7,000 women and children at risk for living on the street, said Kalinowski. Another 3,000, described as the “hidden homeless,” are women seeking shelter. Women of aboriginal descent, young, disabled, older, abused, and recent immigrant are at the highest risk of being homeless. Also disturbing, say officials of the homelessness event, is the average life expectancy for a female in Canada is 81 years. But for a woman who is homeless, her life span is about 39 years.

The event also allowed the Affordable Housing Flagship to launch a campaign called How’s the Weather, which includes a web site.

“Homelessness is simply unacceptable,” said Kalinowski.

Poverty remains one of the main reasons for women being homeless, she said. About one in five Canadian women live in poverty, perpetuated by the marginal rates the provincial government provides through its Ontario Works, and Ontario Disability Support Program, she said.

The province also announced cuts this summer to its homelessness programs starting in 2013. Hamilton councillors did agree to keep funding the programs for the first six months of next year.

“(Homeless people) are teetering on financial collapse,” said Kalinowski, arguing for a need to provide the necessary resources to assist vulnerable people.

About half of the women in poverty have some sort of mental illness, substance abuse, or have been victims of sexual assault.

“The problem doesn’t end at the shelter door,” she said.

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