Out in the Cold: Looking at Homelessness in St. John's

It gets more and more difficult to leave the house as winter drags on and hauling on layers becomes an unwelcome burden. On this island, we have an intimate relationship with cold and the joy it saps during the darker months. We are lucky though. As per a report published in April 2018 by End Homelessness St. John’s, at least 165 people don’t have stable housing on any given night.

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End Homelessness St. John’s aims to bring together all manner of community organizations and stakeholders including government, non-profit, business, academic, and faith-based organizations to use a “Housing First philosophy” to ending homelessness in the city.

The report highlighted several inequities: disproportionately represented were indigenous peoples, those with addictions issues, and those leaving the corrections system. Indigenous peoples are wildly overrepresented in this survey – though the total population of indigenous peoples in St. John’s stands at only 3.3%, over a quarter of respondents in the survey identify as indigenous. Also disproportionately represented were youth who had previously been in child protection or foster care. The report states, “of the youth living in care, half had become homeless within a year after leaving care, and all respondents felt child protection was not helpful in transitioning them out of care.”

It’s no secret that people across the country struggle to find affordable housing. So it would come as no surprise to learn that Toronto and Vancouver, cities with notoriously high housing costs, each have notably high numbers of citizens experiencing homelessness. As of January 31, 2019, almost 7000 people were homeless in Toronto.

Data suggests that St. John’s is no exception to this trend.

The city’s shelters are almost entirely at capacity on any given night, and despite best efforts of both government and community organizations, some populations still don’t have access to the services they need. The unemployment rate in our province was the highest in Canada as of last year (14.7% - stat from EHST report 2018). Affordable housing plays a large role in the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given night.

Image borrowed from  Facebook .

Image borrowed from Facebook.

Joanne Thompson, director of The Gathering Place St. John’s, acknowledges that a combination of factors contributes to the numbers of people experiencing homelessness. In a phone interview, she explained that many who experience homelessness are dealing with other complex issues including mental health and addictions. She cites several factors that contribute to the difficulty and complexity of the housing problems faced in St. John’s. “Homelessness and the crisis around housing really is inadequate housing: inadequate housing arrangements and being cold, not having access to a kitchen, overcrowding, violence because of the complexity and personalities living within this space. There’s no doubt that chronic mental illness [is] a common denominator. Drug addictions, alcohol addictions, other types of addictions, are really a strong second. This population has fallen through the cracks.”

Affordable housing is defined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation as the ability to pay rent without spending more than thirty percent of your monthly income. A quick Google search will show you that a one bedroom apartment in the city costs anywhere between $700 to upwards of $1200. Considering the current difficulties that exist with the public transit system in St. John’s, (which is also currently up for review) it’s easy to imagine how finding an affordable living situation becomes difficult once transportation and accessibility have been factored in.

End Homelessness St John’s has identified factors here that “[suggest] that a need exists for housing that is affordable based on household income". Affordable housing has been a persistent issue in the city and was addressed in November by City Council’s 10-Year Affordable Housing Strategy. While in its infancy, the plan promises to have a positive effect on the city’s housing problem by making available more housing to more people.

As the cold rambles on, we will don our scarves and hats and brave winter’s chill. If you are heading out into the gale, maybe consider helping someone who needs it.

The Gathering Place accepts volunteer applications year-round and is currently looking for more helpers for Sundays. Financial gifts are also always appreciated.

The entire End Homelessness St. John’s 2018 report can be accessed here.