On the outside looking in

As Kingston vows to eradicate homelessness, those still on the streets struggle to survive

According to the City of Kingston, 818 individuals spent time in local shelters in 2012.
According to the City of Kingston, 818 individuals spent time in local shelters in 2012.
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Eleven years ago, Scott fell off a 12-storey roof.

It happened in London, Ont., where he’d taken a covert roofing job to compensate for a lack of hours and pay with a landscaping company.

He survived the plummet, but shattered his entire left ribcage, smashed his solar plexus and cracked his left shoulder blade in half. Since then, the fall has led to far greater misfortune.

“That [job] was under the table, so worker’s comp wouldn’t cover that,” said Scott, who asked that his last name be omitted.

“I was on [Ontario Works financial assistance], and at the time, that wasn’t enough to pay my rent, so I ended up sleeping on the streets for a little while.”

Since his fall, Scott has been homeless on four occasions times. He now lives in a meager apartment in Kingston, and while his experience is somewhat stable for the moment, it’s hardly unique in town.

According to the City of Kingston, 818 individuals spent time in local shelters in 2012. With just a small monthly stipend from Ontario Works to rely on, Scott is essentially on the brink.

He’s applying for funding from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), but all his requests to date have been denied. For Scott and Kingston’s homeless, survival is a daily endeavour.

“If you want to get off the street, you got a choice: move into a small room for all your money [or] live with a bunch of drug addicts,” he said.

“Once you get into it, it becomes a friggin’ cycle.”

***

The City’s goal is to eliminate long-term homelessness — and to do it soon.

Last Thursday, the City of Kingston approved the 10-Year Municipal Housing & Homelessness Plan, which represents a drastic shift in policy from Kingston’s previous approach to vagrancy.

It’s an ambitious set of objectives that, if successful, will provide 80 per cent of chronically homeless Kingstonians with stable housing by 2023.

The Plan defines chronic homelessness as a year-long absence of stable housing, or four separate bouts of homelessness over three years.

Perhaps the most notable change is an immediate ideological shift — one that seeks to eradicate homelessness, rather than simply manage it.

“Managing [means] that we’re offering services that are going towards those that are homeless, but they’re not getting at the root causes of a person’s homelessness,” said Sheldon Laidman, the director of the City’s housing department.

According to Laidman, external research suggests that 20 per cent of a city’s homeless population can be classified as chronic, and these individuals can cost the City and related services around $62,000 a year — over triple the cost of care for a regular homeless person.

Over the next decade, the Plan hopes to ensure that no Kingston resident is homeless for longer than a month.

“The plan isn’t naïve to think that there will be no homeless people, but it defines homelessness as a system where people are only homeless for a short period of time,” Laidman said.

The task of quantifying Kingston’s homeless population began on Oct. 16, when the City conducted its first-ever Point in Time count.

Over a hundred volunteers surveyed homeless people throughout the downtown area to gain demographic data. Laidman said the goal was to evaluate Kingston’s homeless situation on that specific evening.

On Oct. 18, the Journal reported that several volunteers, shelter workers and homeless individuals were concerned with the procedure and accuracy of the survey.

Still, Laidman said the City plans to conduct a similar Point in Time count every two years. Final results from the October survey are expected by the end of December.

***

The dog at Scott’s feet is three years old, jet black with a shade of brown across his back, lying obediently among a stream of pedestrians. He’s a Rottweiler and black lab mix. His name is Kon.

Scott and Kon have been together since the latter’s birth, in and out of temporary and makeshift homes. Most days, Scott finds a quiet spot on Princess St., unfurls a tattered blanket and lays out two silver dog bowls.

The dog keeps Scott company, out of trouble, away from danger. Trouble and danger intercede in Kon’s life, like uninvited guests, and Scott does his best to shoo them away.

It isn’t always easy. Last year, Scott moved into a boarding house in Kingston with Kon, only to discover that their fellow lodgers were selling crack and meth out of the residence.

The police realized it, too.

“The door got kicked in and [Kon] almost got shot, so I left. I just walked out,” Scott said. “That was in the summertime, thankfully, so I spent a couple months camping out.”

Eventually, man and dog were taken in by Home Base Housing, which provides affordable living accommodation to needy Kingstonians.

When money runs thin, which it often does, they panhandle.

At first, Scott didn’t like the idea. It conjured images of a meek, undignified beggar pleading for a pittance of change, frail palm outstretched as the fortunate sped by, blissfully or awkwardly unaware.

That vision’s changed.

“For me, it’s actually a godsend,” Scott said. “I’m antisocial and stuff, so this is therapy. I talk to people that I would never talk to. You learn different stories and different things.”

When four hours on the street is too much to bear, there are other places Scott turns to for help. With limited income and a dog to care for, a cheap meal at Martha’s Table or the Salvation Army can be his best bet for sustenance.

“There is a lot of help out there,” he said. “There’s no reason to go hungry in this city, that’s for sure.”

***

Help can be a conversation, a bundle of clothing or a meal.

All three are offered at Lunch by George, a drop-in food provider located in the upstairs wing of St. George’s Cathedral on Wellington St.

The program operates every weekday morning, handing out cups of coffee at 9 a.m., a bowl of soup at 10 and a full lunch at 11.

Their clientele fluctuates week by week, according to board member Peter Gower, but daily numbers can get up to 70 based on financial circumstances.

“We know that our numbers spike toward the third week of the month, which is when the welfare cheques run out,” Gower said.

“We’re assuming that most of our people have difficulty making either their welfare cheque or their pay cheque run for a whole month.

“I suspect that for some of our people, that mid-day meal is probably their only meal of the day — certainly their major meal,” he added.

The food service operates on a non-judgmental, anonymous basis. Any customer is welcome, and all sorts of Kingstonians take advantage.

“We try to give some sort of dignity to people that could well spend two, three hours in the morning wandering somewhere,” Gower said. “We bring them together — they can share information on where else to go."

One regular customer is Gary, a former millwright who’s been homeless since moving to Kingston in 2009. He receives around $1,140 per month from ODSP, which isn’t enough to afford regular housing.

Instead, he lives in a motel, trekking to Lunch by George or a similar food provider for the bulk of his meals.

“You can’t let people starve on the street,” said Gary, who requested that only his first name be printed. “It’s good the churches are able to pick up.”

Most afternoons, Gary walks three blocks north to volunteer with Peers of the Roundtable — the Kingston branch of the Mental Health Support Network South East Ontario Corporation.

It’s a peer support program located in eight Ontario towns, providing non-clinical assistance for mental health concerns.

“We provide a warm space for people to be at in the winter months and an air-conditioned place in the summer months,” said Michelle Way, support centre coordinator of the Kingston branch.

“We advocate with people about their homelessness issues. We just let people know what’s out there.”

***

Tattoos and prison. The two have been entwined in Scott’s life since adolescence, from his first conviction at 12 years old to a month-long jail stint last June.

He’s 44 now, and Scott estimates he’s spent half his life behind bars.

Thefts, break and enters and driving offences have cost him valued possessions and precious time — but in a small, roundabout way, they may have saved him, too.

“I got my first tattoo when I was 14,” Scott said. “When I was 21, I got a tattoo in the penitentiary and I watched the guy build his homemade [tattoo] gun. When I built my own homemade gun, I started tattooing myself.”

That spurred a lifelong pursuit, and after Scott purchased a professional tattoo set 12 years ago, he began offering his services to others.

“It’s just a chance to hang out, talk, get to know people and give a tattoo,” Scott said. “It’s something I enjoy doing, and it gives other people a chance to get a tattoo without paying friggin’ $600.”

Small sums of cash and a chance to connect. They keep Scott going, for now. He has a roof over his head, for now.

For those whose lives are spent drifting in and out of housing, every action is predicated on the short-term: the next client, the next donation, the next meal.

Scott hopes to be approved for ODSP in the coming months. The income would allow him to buy a month’s worth of groceries and dog food. It’d be a step up from mere survival.

“There are a lot of homeless people where part of the reason they’re homeless is because the only place they can get into is a crack house or a drug den,” he said. “For a minimum of $450, they’re living in a small closet.”

He points to old, forgotten buildings throughout downtown — a chemical building on Montreal St., and others. There are houses sitting empty, he said, that could be fixed to help those in immediate need.

“It’s something that bugs me because it’s a solution,” Scott said. “You don’t have the buildings sitting there abandoned and rotting, and you’re giving people more options than what there are out there.”

Yesterday, the Whig-Standard reported that Home Base Housing is currently constructing a new men’s shelter in the old chemical building, with space to accommodate up to 30 people.

“If I ever won the lottery, I’d buy one of these old buildings and fix it up,” Scott added.

Until that stroke of luck arrives, he waits. It’s late November on Princess St., and the temperature creeps towards freezing. In the afternoon, though, the sun still shines, and foot traffic remains steady.

“Kingston has pretty cool people,” Scott said. As he speaks, an older woman stops on the sidewalk. She bends down, pets Kon on the head and pulls out a toonie.

The coin clangs in the dog bowl as she smiles and walks away.

“You get the odd person that gives you a snot face, but then you get people like that,” Scott continues. “You get people that don’t give anything, but they still want to say hello and talk and pet the dog.”

Raised from his slumber, Kon takes a sip of water and nestles himself back in his owner’s lap. Scott stares ahead.

“Sometimes, a smile and a conversation is worth more than a dollar,” he said.

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