The nearly 300 km stretch between Windsor and Kitchener covers almost all of southwestern Ontario.
Within that distance, there is only one family-based emergency shelter.
Located close to London’s downtown core, Rotholme Women’s & Family Shelter is operated by Mission Services. With just enough space for up to 20 families at a time, the shelter is frequently at capacity.
A home between homes
But lately, staff are saying stays have been longer than usual due to London’s low vacancy rate and lack of affordable housing.
“Finding housing has been challenging because the affordable housing crisis is very real,” said Rachel Ganzewinkel, communications and PR coordinator for Mission Services.
According to a progress report on London’s Emergency Shelters prepared by the City of London and published in December 2018, Rotholme saw a five per cent increase in unique individuals (adults and children) accessing the shelter from 2011 to 2017.
Since 2011, the rate of individuals staying over 31 nights at the shelter increased from one third of family residents to more than half.
London’s vacancy rate hit rock-bottom at 1.8 per cent in 2017. While the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp (CMHC) reported an increase to 2.3 per cent in October 2018, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment now sits at approximately $1,087.
This can make it difficult for many families to fit into the current market’s definition of ‘affordable’.
“Who is it affordable for?” Ganzewinkel said of London’s low-income rents. “Those using social services, like [Ontario Works] and [Ontario Disability Support Program], or someone who just graduated and has a beginning salary but also a lot of student debt? These are some very different situations in terms of affordability, and I think that’s the next step of the conversation.”
Who needs Rotholme?
The question of affordability plagues families from various walks of life.
“We have people who are employed and people who are unemployed in receipt of social assistance,” said Stacey Wilson, Rotholme’s program supervisor. “We have people who are disabled, we have newcomers [to Canada]; all different kinds.”
During a tour of the facilities, Wilson and Ganzewinkel explained that staff are often meeting with families who never thought they would consider emergency sheltering.
In 2017, 82 per cent of the individuals at Rotholme were new shelter users.
“Our housing crisis worker who works with families in the community, in the last couple of months she’s seen and supported families who the main income in the household is employment,” Wilson said. “They’re not in receipt of social assistance by any means, and they are struggling to find housing.”
Wilson and Ganzewinkel said that Rotholme never turns away those who show up during a crisis, either through a referral or on their own accord. Staff will invite them in and offer food and a change of clothes. At that point, they’ll get into “problem-saving mode” to see if there is any other alternative to staying in the shelter.
In worst case scenarios, families will spend the night in one of the shelter’s lounges before facing the next day.
When all else has failed and a family is admitted into Rotholme, finding housing as soon as possible is top priority. The longer the stay, the more challenging it can become to find rentals and return to regular life.
Unlike other shelters, Rotholme is set up so that families can stay together.
Families – two parent, single parent, grandparent, male or female led – stay in bedrooms that can accommodate up to four single beds. There is no limit to the family size, and if necessary, large families are split between two bedrooms.
Sometimes they bring along their own belongings. Other times, they have brought the bare minimum, with everything else set aside in a storage unit. Families are provided with free laundry soap and free access to machines.
Transgender individuals occasionally stay due to safety risks at other shelters. While the facility does accommodate single women, those fleeing from abuse are typically referred to alternatives that are more secure and male-free.
Discovering community in tight quarters
The building is older and does not have an elevator, so wheelchair accessible bedrooms and bathrooms are on the first floor. The eating area and bathrooms are communal, which means that residents get to know each other quickly.
“The families are a community while they’re here,” Wilson said. “They build friendships while they’re here, and I think those friendships even follow them through when they move out.”
Residents share two lounges to watch TV or play video games. In the warmer months, younger kids can play outside in a brightly painted courtyard while their guardians look on. Parents must keep constant tabs of their children, although Wilson said they often help each other out.
“Normalcy and dignity”
Life in a shelter can be highly disruptive to a family, but it must go on as usual; kids must go to school, parents to their jobs. To help them feel more at home, Rotholme staff maintain a rigorous mealtime routine. Food, often donated, is prepared by in-house cooks and assembled by staff with safe food handling certifications. Every night, parents make their children’s school lunches.
“It all goes back to giving them normalcy and dignity,” Ganzewinkel said. “We’re trying to keep things as normal as possible.”
Volunteers from various high school and post-secondary programs assist the staff in organizing special events and activities such as movie and craft nights, and day camps during the summer. House meetings are held throughout the week to discuss cleanliness and being mindful of the kids.
Parents are also given basic life skills classes during their stay. Staff and volunteers will instruct them on how to look for rentals, present themselves at a viewing, manage payday loans, do their income tax, or simply eat better.
“It’s important that autonomy is maintained to keep [the families’] self-confidence. We like to help instead of do things for them,” said Ganzewinkel.
Ultimately, Rotholme staff want to make sure that once the families are out, they’re out for good.
Fighting to move out and move on
Parents of Rotholme families are tasked with learning new skills, working or looking for work, and frantically apartment hunting – all while raising their kids, and perhaps even dealing with a disability.
“People get stuck and they get discouraged,” Wilson said. “I read in our notes, probably daily, that people are saying they’re looking at places, they’re getting denied.”
Wilson said that receiving social assistance can be a barrier on a rental application and applying for social housing can be a long-shot.
“A lot of people will come to stay in shelter under the assumption that [they’ll] get into rent geared to income social housing quite quickly, which is not the case. The list is astronomical.”
According to the City of London’s website, over 3,000 households stood on the waiting list for social housing as of the last provincial election.
Families will often find housing using their own personal connections or through their faith-based community instead. Rotholme’s housing selection worker will also help by posting listings and liaising with landlords or co-ops.
Life after Rotholme
Once a family has finally found a home, Rotholme assigns a case worker to help them foster a positive relationship with their landlord. Other families can also move into properties Rotholme leases from the city and rent them out for market price, while implementing their newly-acquired life skills.
“I think [families] are able to maintain housing stability through learning those life skills that perhaps they didn’t have before,” said Ganzewinkel, who added that instilling those skills helps to create future diversion and prevent repeat stays.
Ganzewinkel and Wilson said that homelessness exists on a spectrum and isn’t always easy to identify. Some families change their addresses and lose touch with the shelter’s staff; they could be doing well, or they could be couch-surfing or living precariously in hotels or with relatives.
“Family homelessness often can be hidden, and families will stay in different living situations just so that they can get by until they’re able to move. Families that come to stay with us don’t look different often,” Wilson said. “Sometimes they might look like they struggle because they sleep in a room all together or they come here and they’ve left all their belongings behind and they’re starting out fresh, but the kids are caring, friendly and happy.”
Like so many others experiencing homelessness, a family’s housing crisis could very well be invisible to the outside world’s eye.
In 2017, 582 individuals accessed Rotholme’s emergency family shelter. To learn more about volunteering or making donations of food, clothing, toys and diapers, go to missionservices.ca.