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Kingston: A Room of One's Own

In Kingston, the SEII project has worked on closing the distance between homeless people/tenants and landlords. Following a Community Visioning session in November 2002, the Kingston SEII leadership group decided that it needed to understand better the perspectives of both people who were homeless and landlords. Meetings were organized with both homeless people and with landlords to hear the fears and needs of both groups.

As a result of separate weekly meetings of "tenants" and homeless people, the Room of One's Own (ROOO) group of self-advocates was formed. ROOO members also met monthly with landlords, city officials, and service providers. At the monthly meetings, ROOO issues were brought forward for consideration and discussion in an attempt to find common ground that landlords and tenants could support. This led to several leading landlords in the Kingston area became actively engaged in the process, including the head of a major landlords' association in eastern Ontario.

Common ground between ROOO members and landlords was discovered in several areas, such as support for an increase in shelter allowances, a direct rent payment option to landlords (at the voluntary choice of tenants), and the need for a renter-landlord matching service, including community service agency supports to both tenants and landlords experiencing tension or conflict in a tenancy.

The landlords association in eastern Ontario invited ROOO members to their annual meeting in the fall of 2003. Landlord representatives also joined ROOO members to make joint presentations on shared positions to political representatives, including the Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs in January 2004.

ROOO has established itself with the community and the City administration as a voice for people without homes in the community. There has been some impact in terms of new investment and improved services in the emergency shelter situation in Kingston. Community understanding of the issue of homelessness has also increased as a result of positive local media coverage of ROOO activities in Kingston.

In March 2004, seven of the ROOO members attended the Closing the Distance Provincial Conference in Toronto. They made a joint presentation on the Kingston Closing the Distance project with the head of the landlord's association from eastern Ontario.

(See Case Studies for information on how to get the full story on ROOO and the Closing the Distance Project in Kingston)

Going Forward

A Room of One's Own has been integral in raising awareness about housing issues in their community through public education. Since the spring of 2004, ROOO has engaged directly with political decision-makers. In June 2004, ROOO members and landlord representatives planned and conducted a joint meeting of their federal, provincial and municipal political representatives to advance their policy proposals on housing and homelessness. The elected officials made a commitment to an annual "three-level" meeting with ROOO at that time and the next one is being planned for June 2005.

Further, one of the results of ROOO action was a City of Kingston sub-committee that established homelessness as a priority on the local social housing registry.

In February 2005, the Kingston SPC supported ROOO in calling an open community meeting to consider a proposal for highlighting the conditions that homeless people in Kingston are experiencing. More than 50 people joined the ROOO members in a lively discussion at the public library about the merits of promoting the design and building of small-scale shelters for homeless members of the community.

There was vigorous debate about whether building temporary, mobile shelters was letting the politicians "off the hook" or risked suggesting that a "shantytown" was adequate shelter for homeless community members. Others felt that some kind of symbolic action by the community in conjunction with ROOO members to construct housing would be a good way to draw media and public attention to the homelessness issue. ROOO members, themselves, expressed a wish to raise public awareness and to get political action, but they also were attracted to the idea of some kind of "direct action" like building reasonable temporary shelters so that people would not have to sleep on the street or in the crowded conditions of public shelters.

As spring 2005 approaches, the community and ROOO members continue to struggle with how to balance symbolic action for public awareness building with real immediate need in a project focused on building small-scale shelters.

In addition to the three-level government meeting and action on the Kingston social housing registry, ROOO has identified a number of priority action areas to work on including:

  • Increasing the Ontario Works Shelter Allowance
  • Promoting more transitional housing
  • Year-round funding for Kingston's overflow emergency shelter program
  • Redirecting properties confiscated for tax arrears to non-profit housing

Photos and Videos of Kingston Project Leaders

Janet Comis, launching the Kingston Project
December 2002

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High Res (4 MB) Jayne Negus, reporting on plans for Kingston Project
March 2003

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High Res (4 MB)

Jim Stevens, volunteer leader involved in the Kingston project since Phase 1

John Osborne Senior Project Manager with SPCKA overseeing the Kingston Closing the Distance Project

Matt Silburn, SPCKA Community Facilitator supporting the mobilization of tenants and homeless people for leadership in A Room of One's Own

(Left to right) Former SPCKA Project staff Cathy Cleary and current staff Matt Silburn join ROOO tenant leaders Brad Heaslip and Lenny Landry and ROOO landlord leader Steve Manders in presenting to the Closing the Distance Provincial Conference in Toronto, March 23, 2004

Brad Heaslip, ROOO leader, talks with Provincial Conference participant about the Kingston Closing the Distance Project

ROOO poster to publicize a community education event for the promotion of higher shelter allowances

Community Vision (December 2002)

(In December 2002, about fifteen community leaders in Kingston came together to spend a day shaping a direction for the Kingston Closing the Distance Project. Homelessness was their focus. The following summarizes their discussion as captured in several wall-size graphic murals produced during the day.)

We know the cycle of distancing that occurs if you have no place to call home. Money, jobs, health, relationships are all impacted dramatically if there is no place that you can call your own. Even the most basic of units of housing, a room, can make a huge difference in beginning to close the gaps that exist in the lives of people who have become homeless, no matter what the reason.

Kingston is a city that finds many people on the edge of homelessness. There are people who are exiting one of the many correctional facilities; youth who have left home; or middle aged men separated from family and out of work; people battling mental illness who have been discharged from the psychiatric hospital; women who escape violent relationships, with or without children; older women who survive the death of a spouse. Whatever the reason, having no place can exacerbate an already difficult situation.

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Leaving Prison - The first 60 days

People who have left correctional facilities after finishing the terms of their sentence, and those who work with them have learned that the first 60 days out are critical. If you can't find and secure a place to live, the likelihood of things not working is high, frequently leading to re-offence.

When people are leaving prison, they have little or no money; they either have no social network, or the one they have may not be an option when trying to have a new start and stay away from further criminal activity. There are even laws that prohibit them from associating with the people they have in their network.

Ex-offenders have the struggle of finding work with a criminal record. There is a stigma associated with being "a criminal". There is much fear in the public, "what will these people do to me?" It is difficult to find a place to live with this reputation following them. Few people are willing to welcome a person who carries a stereotype that inspires fear for one's safety.

Youth on the Streets

For a variety of reasons there are young people who leave home. Many end up on the streets because it is perceived to be a safer place than where they are coming from; for others there is the allure of freedom from restrictions; others have been kicked out after growing family conflicts. Once they leave home it is extremely difficult to stay in school.

On the streets they too often inspire fear in the public. Life on the streets quickly affects appearances. It is difficult to have clean clothes. No showers means strong odour. Add to this that these young people often have a low sense of self; they assume they are not trusted; that they do not belong; they appear to be anti-social and project an image that suggests, "I'll prove that I really am unacceptable".

Underneath it all they are deeply vulnerable. Many of them are still legally children, not yet recognized as adults; they are still maturing physically, emotionally, and intellectually. They have not yet acquired the experience that brings wisdom. They are most often disconnected from the guidance of adults who care about them, adults they can trust. And all of this leads them to be preyed upon by those adults who drive the sex and drug trade. When you need a warm shower, clean clothes, food, you'll do whatever it takes to get them.

Not having a safe place to stay fuels a cycle that leads to isolation.

Losing a Job in Midlife

Losing a job is always a source of stress. But as we get older the vulnerability of the experience increases. Depending on the nature of our work experience we are particularly at risk if our skills are not readily transferable. We lose the sense of pride that comes from work, and in its place there is shame.

Most people will live as long as they can, using the financial resources that they have spent years socking away as a nest egg for those retirement years. When the nest egg is dried up, shame and fear multiply, and all of this makes it more difficult to find work.

Criteria for employment programs such as Ontario Works create a dilemma for those who do whatever they can to find work including taking on part time jobs, often bottom level low paying jobs, only to find that they are penalized by their efforts. It appears as though they will never be able rise up out of the hole that results from losing their job.

When people experience such deep losses, and internalize a lack of self worth, they will project that in their appearance, by how they carry themselves, how they dress, how they talk, in the tone of their voice.

Deeply embedded in the psyche of our culture is the fear of these losses. So much so that we will look away from those who are going through it because it is too painful for us to see. Social connections, so essential to finding work, become harder to create ? and the cycle continues.

Struggling with Mental Health Issues

Sometimes battles with mental illness cause job loss and homelessness, sometimes it is the result.

People who are battling mental illness are another source of fear for the rest of society. The fear that this could be our experience is overwhelming so we choose to make people into "other" in order that we can distance ourselves from our fears. We see the behaviour of these people as a reason to isolate rather than understand. It justifies in our minds why these people were traditionally locked up.

When we are faced with people who are not ruled by social conventions, people who invade our space, who smell because of the medications they take, or who have not showered or cleaned their clothes, we don't know what to do, and we don't know what they will do. They are unpredictable and rather than experience the vulnerability that comes with this uncertainty, we push people away, avoid them, and stay at a distance.

Stories in our media further entrench the distance by embedding frightening images and thoughts in our minds, all of which just stalls any efforts to bridge the gap, deepen understanding, or address the issues.

It is true that we used to place people in institutions, now we just work hard to put them out of our minds. People struggling with mental health issues simply fall through the cracks between living in institutions, and living in our communities.

Unique Vulnerabilities of Women

Many women are catapulted into homelessness and poverty as a result of a violent relationship with a spouse or partner. They are in deep need of a secure place, safe from the hounding of the man that has already harmed them. It is not simply a room that is required; the room must be connected to relationships that can protect.

If they have children the need and the complexity of the situation are multiplied. They not only need security for themselves, they need to protect the children from harm, and abduction.

Custody issues further complicate. To maintain custody they must find a place to live that can be seen as a good place for children to grow up. If a woman has been dependent upon the income of a man for food, clothing, housing, and has had to leave all of this, she is not able to replace all that she had.

Women with children face the added problem of finding work and caring for children. If they seek out employment they risk losing financial assistance, complete with health care benefits for prescriptions, and other unexpected costs. They are faced with the need for childcare that is affordable and subsidized.

They face the difficulty of accessing public transportation systems with young children; the cost in money and time; the availability of housing on routes that make it possible to go to work, school, shopping.

Most women are likely to live longer than men and as such often outlive their husbands, facing dramatic losses, personally, emotionally, financially, and practically.

As they age they face health issues that require supports for monitoring and care. They require places that are physically accessible with modifications that can maximize the experience of independence. And they require emotional support to deal with losses and loneliness.

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Common Ground for All Who Seek a Room of One's Own

All of the people that we have identified share a number of things in common as they hunt for a place to live, a room, a safe place off the streets.

All experience loss; loss of home; loss of income; loss of possessions; loss of relationships, loss of pride.

All find themselves dealing with public views that are somewhere on a continuum between simply being uncomfortable, unfamiliar with what to do, how to act; all the way to outright fear for their lives, fear that they are in danger. All experience varying levels of rejection at the hands of strangers. None of this inspires or promotes citizenship, skill development, relationship building.

Having no place, no address, has dramatic financial implications. You have no address for your resume or job application; you become viewed as unstable, unreliable. If you can't find work, you can't develop or build upon a work history, you become even less eligible for future employment. You have no phone number where you can be reached for interviews. You are not eligible for Ontario Works and other financial assistance programs.

If you have no room of your own, you have no secure place for your material possessions. Shelters and the streets are places where theft is expected. If you lose your identification and have no address you are at great risk. No identification means no health card, no health card means no doctor services, no treatment for medical or mental health issues that arise.

If you have no place to go to, to get off the streets, away from the shelters, you are not safe. You are at risk of physical and sexual assault.

Most people who are homeless, or on the edge of homelessness, have already experienced their social network of relationships diminishing. Ending up homeless only furthers the weakening of the networks. The networks that do get formed while people are homeless are often not productive because people lack the resources to get out of the situations they find themselves in.

All need even the most basic of places, a room that they can call their own, if they are to move closer to a life of full citizenship. Without it, the costs are too high for all of us.

© Social Planning Network of Ontario