What Does Homelessness Mean to You?

As workforce planning boards, we are charged with examining the workforce from a number of angles.  One of the challenges we face is the return to support rate of job seekers.  This means simply that some job seekers who are supported by funding from Durham Region or from the province, often get a job and then shortly afterward, lose the job and return to the support.  The data is interesting and in some cases, startling.  But as with all data, it doesn’t mean much if you don’t seek to find the story behind it.  This is a key factor of workforce planning.  As workforce planning boards, we can gather all the data we can get our hands on, but if we don’t seek that story behind the scenes, we will never truly build a Local Labour Market Plan that meets the needs of our community and addresses systemic issues like the numbers of return to support.

Recently, the Murray McKinnon Foundation invited its community partners to participate in a ‘Homeless Maze.”  Community organizations were invited to attend and find their way through community support organizations.  The entire Durham Workforce Authority (DWA) staff attended Friday morning to participate.

one homeless maze
Paige is on the left, and Jennifer on the right, this is at the start of our day

Each of us was given a profile of a person in need of community supports.  The foundation asked the participants to assume these profiles for the morning and to use the provided information to work our way through the systems.

Here are the DWA profiles:

Jennifer – single women, escaping violence in the home, with two young children under seven, no income, seeking shelter

Paige – Single father with custody of a three-year old daughter, $150 in the bank, no other income, no identification

Heather (me!) – single, twenty-something, almost finished Employment Insurance (no job), diabetic, lost all identification, behind in rent, with a large dog

We were provided with a few rules, that we could not ask what table was providing which service, we just had to pick a line and get in one, we could only visit the table individually and we could not work together.  It as isolating indeed.

The community services were set up throughout the church.  Some lines were very long.  You could feel the frustration growing.  You knew people were beginning to understand the difficulty some members of our community face – daily.

Once I had assumed my persona; I headed to the food bank. It was obvious it was a food bank – it had bags of food on the table.  I waited in line.  I discovered that I could only get food once month and that the food bank probably would not have food for my dog.  (as a dog lover, this struck me)

I remembered that my persona had diabetes and that this required medical care, after waiting for ten minutes, because I lacked identification and a health card, that I could only get basic diabetic care,  I was referred to the John Howard Society (JHS) to get my ID replaced.

six homeless maze - front line health care support
Front line health care support in our community

Now, I had to find the JHS amongst the long lines, a bag of food in my hand and my imaginary dog.  (I pretended he was a very friendly German Shepard)  After two wrong turns – a visit to the informative housing support and a rather nice lady at the St. Vincent’s Kitchen, I found my way to the JHS.  I did not know they would pay the fees to have my ID replaced, the Society has the identification sent to their office for those in precarious homes.  I felt uplifted by this experience.  I could get proper health care with some identification!

Homeless Maze Participants visiting shelter supports
Homeless Maze Participants visiting shelter supports

The housing support recommended that I visit the Ontario Works table to make arrangements for support once my Employment Insurance ended.  I quickly discovered that this should have been my first stop – the line was hours long and the room was restless.  I gave up.

Long lines and confusion at Ontario Works
Long lines and confusion at the Ontario Works line. This felt very real.

The group convened for a debrief at the end of the event.  It was interesting to hear about other experiences.  Jennifer noted how difficult it would be to be a single parent and to navigate the system with two young children in tow.  She mentioned that she was struck by the challenge of finding food and soup kitchens through out the community. Paige commented that as a single father, finding emergency shelter was almost impossible.  She was unable to locate a service for her persona in the maze.

What struck all of us was how humble people felt, how they felt that as community organizations and individuals there was much more we could do in our community.  Three key recommendations came forward at the close of the event: to encourage the Murray McKinnon Foundation to offer this event again, to expand the invitation list to others in the community and to work together to explore ways to help our homeless, precarious in our community.

As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, the DWA seeks to find the story behind the data, and this experience certainly provided an insight to the challenges of the precarious in our community.  This event has changed the kinds of questions we will ask in our upcoming community consultations and will push the DWA to work with our employment counterparts to develop programs and services with this experience in mind.  The event ended with a hearty acknowledgement of the hard work our community groups do almost anonymously every day.  We truly are surrounded by heroes.

Kudos to the Murray McKinnon Foundation for a job well done!