It starts with hope

Across the region, people struggle in plain sight, their symptoms of poverty visible as they battle addiction, homelessness, isolation and mental health in parks, on street corners and in downtown building doorways. But those working hard to change that story say there is reason for hope.

“ReUnited means bringing people back together to support their communities … to feel love and connection.” Learn how United Way Elgin Middlesex helps.

In an area known for its health-care excellence, agricultural riches and for generally being a safe place to raise kids, many community members are ill, hungry and living in chronically unsafe conditions. Some are living and dying in the streets.

Some days, it seems like the problem is too big: too many layers, too many people in pain. That there’s nothing anyone can do. That the situation is hopeless.

But those on the front lines of the crisis, participants and employees involved with programs funded by United Way Elgin Middlesex (UWEM) to support people in deep poverty don’t see it that way.

They have a different story to tell. It’s a story about resilience and about a community saying, ‘we will not accept the unacceptable.’

And it starts with hope.

‘It’s like a second home to me’

“I’ve gone through a rough time in my life, I’ve lived on the street. And for a long time, I honestly started to feel like people didn’t have any caring in them,” said Mario, who worked as a chef at a downtown London restaurant for seven years before he lost his job after beginning to lose his vision due to glaucoma. “I went from being a chef to being a nobody.”

Unable to pay his rent, Mario was experiencing homelessness before finding a close to the London Coffee House, a drop-in program run by CMHA Thames Valley Addiction and Mental Health Services and funded by UWEM to provide coffee, food, basic and conversation.

Life on the street was tough. People pushed him. Knocked his cane out of his hand. Someone he knew stole money from his bank account. The rooming house was precarious, too.

By the time he went into the Coffee House – to avoid a housemate who was having a particularly bad day – he didn’t trust anyone anymore.

“When people first come here, some of them don’t even want to tell you their name,” said Coffee House employee Krista Woodhouse, Transitional Mental Health and Addictions Worker. “They make up a name and that’s fine. We sit down and talk, we pull out cards or a game of chess. We do stuff like hang out and socialize and be friends.”

“When you see just one person get ahead, get housed or get clean, it just makes it all worthwhile.” Meet Krista, who helps neighbours in need at The Coffee House, a program of Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex – an agency supported by United Way Elgin Middlesex. 

The downtown London agency is open to anyone, and also provides people with food and toiletries, laundry service and support connecting to other services in the community.

Mario kept going back. Coffees and muffins led to conversations. He started to trust again.

“I felt like I didn’t have to look over my shoulder when I was in here,” he said.

Six years later, “this is like a second home to me,” Mario said. “If I have issues and troubles at home … I have somewhere I can go and have a coffee, and talk to people who have their life in order and can guide me in the right direction.” 

‘Multiple needs’

Relying solely on United Way funding and private donations to stay open and pay staff, the Coffee House serves about 100 meals a day to people – 90 per cent of whom say they are experiencing mental health struggles.

But it’s only one of dozens of agencies partially funded by United Way and fueled by frontline social service workers dedicated to helping people who experience deep poverty, often combined with complex mental health challenges, substance use and experiences of trauma.

“We are facing a housing crisis, on top of an opioid-poisoning crisis on top of the pandemic. The folks we work with have multiple complex needs,” said Anne Armstrong of London Cares, a United Way funded agency that works to get people experiencing homelessness into housing and help them stay there by providing ongoing support. 

“There is a sense of desperation right now,” she said, adding the needs have been greater since provincial and federal pandemic-relief funding stopped.

“But there is hope because we see what happens when people have the right kind of housing. There is hope that we will get more affordable housing with the right supports,” said Armstrong.

United Way provides funding to London Cares for two housing stability workers. They work one-to-one with people find and get housing by staying in contact, forming relationships and keeping them connected with resources.

Meet Tanya, a program participant with London Cares, a United Way-supported agency. Finding a safe home after two years of homelessness has brought stability, and belonging, to Tanya and her cat.

“We know it’s far more cost effective to house someone with wrap-around support than it is to lean on existing ill-equipped systems to respond to them,” said Season Bieronski, Manager, Housing Services for London Cares.

“People’s health can decline rapidly on the street – we see this all of the time.”

This summer, after advocacy from a coalition of frontline workers, London municipal officials agreed to work toward stopping the criminalization of people in deep poverty and, rather than evict them from public spaces, work with the community to come up with long-term solutions.

“It brought the issues to the forefront and it brought hope,” said Kristy Bell of Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex, which operates London Coffee House, My Sister’s Place and Holly House.

“The hope is that the community is more aware.” 

‘Everyone has the potential to help … to need help”

As the region’s largest non-government funder of essential social services, UWEM has stepped up advocacy around issues linked to poverty and social exclusion, with actions, including support for more robust partnerships to find immediate solutions for people experiencing homelessness.

United Way Elgin Middlesex is working to prevent and reduce poverty – investing in agencies that provide housing, food, meaningful connection – and working towards long-term systemic changes.

Noting racialized and equity-deserving groups were hit harder than others during the pandemic, United Way launched a new Community Fund model this past year that focuses on reducing poverty and increases support for equity-seeking populations. And it continues to invest in critical community programs that aim to prevent and reduce poverty, which is also playing out in apartments and houses and on the streets across the region.  

With house prices and rent rates skyrocketing and inflation at its highest level in 40 years – driving up the cost of food and clothing – financial anxiety is soaring behind closed doors as well. 

“Imagine the pressure,” said United Way Elgin Middlesex President and CEO Kelly Ziegner.

“Should I pay rent or buy groceries? Should I pay the hydro bill or buy school supplies? When you’re making those kinds of decisions, it’s very difficult to participate fully in the community.”

She recalled how during the pandemic, “those who could give, gave more.”

We need that to continue, Ziegner said.

“Our whole community would benefit by ensuring people have adequate, safe housing, nutritious food to eat, a sense of belonging. Security, connection, meaningful and healthy relationships. These are essential to a thriving community, and that’s where our donors, through United Way partner agencies, step up,” Ziegner said.

“I think everyone has the potential to need help and … to give help.”  

520 ‘turn-aways’ every month

One London Cares service is called the Resting Space. With 10 beds for people who can’t get into other emergency shelters, it can be a lifesaver for those who need a safe space to sleep. 

Every single night, more than 10 people are there when the doors open. So, staff have to choose who needs it most: who to let stay and who to turn away. 

About 520 times a month, they must turn people away.

It’s agonizing for frontline workers who are there because they want to help. Armstrong said she’s haunted by a memory of being unable to help someone in need at the beginning of the pandemic.

“It was freezing rain. The core was a ghost town and we needed to screen everybody who came to the resting space for COVID-19 symptoms, and stay six feet apart,” she recalled.

2022_Coffee House

A man staff knew and had built trust with arrived asking to stay because he had no home to go to, but he had symptoms of COVID-19. It was a scary time and the messaging everywhere was to go home, but he had nowhere to go.

“I was so frustrated with the system that day,” Armstrong said.   

“But the system is never going to fix itself. It takes governments and the community to stand together and say this is unacceptable.” 

‘Things are looking up’

After living rough, Tanya stayed in a St. Thomas shelter for four months – a “humbling, very eye-opening experience” – before moving into the 21-bed Women’s Residence.

“Homelessness can happen to anyone. I’m the perfect example,” said Tanya, who lives at the YWCA St. Thomas-Elgin Women’s Residence.  “I didn’t come from child abuse or poverty. I got a job right out of college and worked full time for years. I had a house, had a marriage.”

She had separated from her first husband and was in a different relationship and working 48 hours a week in an office when COVID-19 turned life upside down.

“Everything was fine, until it just wasn’t,” she said, noting she also separated from her partner during the pandemic. “I suffered a bit of an emotional breakdown and that’s what led me to be homeless.”  

“The tough days will pass and the good days will continue.” See how YWCA of St. Thomas-Elgin – an agency supported by United Way Elgin Middlesex – creates a safe place for people to land.

Poverty looks different in smaller communities, said Michelle Mantle, Adult Housing Based Case Manager, who lived in Toronto before moving to St. Thomas.

“In big cities, there are several community centres, food banks in different areas … more housing,” she said.  “Here, there’s only one food bank and the bus system only goes certain places — and in the evenings there is no bus service.” 

Mantle recalled the drastic change in St. Thomas during pandemic shutdown.

“Suddenly people were coming out on the streets, people out there with their shopping carts and doing drugs right out in the open,” said Mantle.

“It was also an eye-opener for people who thought St. Thomas didn’t have a housing problem or an addictions problem.”

Since her time living on the streets of St. Thomas, Tanya has gone from receiving services and basic needs kits, to volunteering for an outreach group that passes them out. She credits the environment, the support staff and the other residents who she lives with at the Women’s Residence.

“Coming to the Y for the first time was a blessing. It was comfortable, clean, I had safety, my own room, privacy, food.”

Within six months, Tanya says she met her “first goal,” which was to find a new job. She was starting to save up for rent.

“Things are looking up. I have hope.” 

Survival mode

People are in survival mode. It’s difficult to work on your mental health or think about getting counselling when you don’t know whether you will have enough money for dinner, let alone a safe place to sleep. 

2022_Crouch basic needs

It’s why social service workers are determined to make sure people in deep poverty have the basics – food, water, toiletries and safe injection (harm reduction) supplies for those who use drugs.

Last year, United Way funded basic-needs programs distributed more than one million meals and nearly two million emergency food items to members of our community.

“If we can take care of people’s basic needs and food and give them a place to be during the day with a roof over their head, air conditioning in the summer, heat in the winter and safety and security, then they can start looking at how to work on mental health needs,” said Karna Trentman, of Canadian Mental Health Association.  

People are so grateful

“Whether it’s employment, setting up their apartment for the first time, putting those dishes in the cupboard… these stories we bear witness to are incredible,” said Lindsay Rice, Executive Director of YWCA St. Thomas-Elgin. “It’s our honour to be part of these life-changing moments.”

Every social service worker in the region has a pocketful of stories that give hope. 

Then there’s the community member who had been living on the street, was banned from many places for his erratic behaviour and was using substances to cope, when Season Bieronski first met him through London Cares.

“He didn’t feel safe and people didn’t feel safe around him.” 

With support from Bieronski and the London Cares team, the man developed a “crisis plan,” and over time he became healthier and more stable. There were challenges, but eventually, he moved into his own apartment.

Recently, Bieronski showed him the plan he had come up with when he first started working with the agency. 

“He said he didn’t even recognize that person anymore,” she said.  “He’s in recovery and living independently in the community.” 

“It’s just the best.” 

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