A home is many things.
A place of belonging where friends or family welcome you in and ask, “how was your day?” A place where you can walk through the door and not notice its unique scent. A place that brings instant safety and security.
But where do you go, when there is no home to come home to?
In October 2022, local youth social services organization Operation Come Home launched a new program titled HousingWorks to help combat youth homelessness.
The program works as a master leasing – also known as “block leasing” – arrangement to provide a home for homeless and at-risk youth in Ottawa. While normal rental agreements are between the landlord and the tenant, OCH becomes a “middleman” and sublets the units out to vulnerable local youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are facing or experiencing homelessness.
Alicia Martinez, the master lease administrator for OCH who oversees the master lease agreements between the private market landlords and the clients, said the program has proved to be effective.
“Within the first year of being housed, six of 11 clients have registered for secondary or post-secondary education independently, requested access to mental health and harm reduction support and otherwise stabilized into housing with a goal of improving their future,” said Martinez.
In addition to building their education, some clients have won scholarships.
While this program benefits the community long-term by helping maintain the supply of affordable housing, OCH recognizes the need for affordable housing is still very great.
“The largest barrier we face is a lack of affordable rental rates,” said Martinez. “Our occupants are eligible to access a housing allowance from the City of Ottawa, however, there is a maximum rent that units must fall within. That maximum rent is not in line with current market rates.”
Since its launch a little over a year ago, HousingWorks has worked with 12 different landlords within Ottawa and is continuing to expand its operations. Currently, they have 11 units, all occupied by clients of OCH.
“Our lease terms are for three years, with the intention of being able to house clients at that affordable rate for a period of up to three years. Our hope is we can continue to keep our rents affordable in perpetuity,” said Martinez.
With homeless rates in Ottawa and across the country increasing, facing homelessness is an experience not too far from reality for many Canadian youth and young adults.
This is a situation Algonquin College music industry arts student Ally McDonald has lived.
“A lot of times when people say they’re homeless, people think ‘well, you don’t have money’ or ‘you’re addicted to drugs,'” said McDonald in an audio interview with reporter Elizabeth Gallant. “But a lot of the time, it is just really misfortunate situation after misfortunate situation and not enough resources for people to get ahold of. Our system kind of fails with that.”
McDonald first became independent when she left the foster care system a month before finishing Grade 11. Between subletting various apartments to staying with friends and acquaintances, staying in a safe place long-term has proved difficult due to varying factors, such as not having a parent or guardian to co-sign a lease, despite having the financial means to afford rent.
“As time went on and, like, life happened, I think I ended up moving in with a boyfriend, and that did not go well,” said McDonald. “I had to leave right away.”
McDonald further explained that once you leave the foster care system, you can’t go back in. At the time, she was receiving financial support from the Voluntary Youth Services Agreement (VYSA) program, but it wasn’t enough to cover both the first and last months’ rent.
Receiving this financial support also made her ineligible to receive additional financial support from other government programs.
“Every single time I have been at the risk of homelessness, I have called shelters,” said McDonald. “But our resources are so full, and unless you are fleeing domestic violence… (being) human trafficked, or some insane bad situation, you’re being put on a list for about two to three years. That is two to three years where you are left out on your own.”
Now in her early twenties, she has struggled to maintain stable housing, bouncing between homes across eastern Ontario. Though she currently has a place to call home, McDonald was forced to sleep outside her first week of school this year.
Collecting data for the homeless population can be challenging, as homelessness is not always apparent or chronic.
In March 2022, Statistics Canada released a study titled A portrait of Canadians who have been homeless to examine rates of homelessness within various demographic groups and which group was more likely to experience homelessness.
The study separated the state of homelessness into two camps: unsheltered and hidden.
Unsheltered homelessness refers to “those who, at some point in their life, have lived in a homeless shelter, on the street or in parks, in a makeshift shelter or an abandoned building.”
Hidden homelessness refers to “those who had to temporarily live with family or friends, or anywhere else because they had nowhere else to live.”
It found that two per cent of individuals between the ages of 15 and 29 were reported to be unsheltered, and 18.3 per cent of those in the same age group were hidden.
Similar to the program offered at OCH, another local organization is working to provide housing for those facing homelessness, but for those who are fleeing violent situations from across Canada.
Matthew House provides transitional housing and refugee settlement assistance within the Ottawa area for refugee claimants who have come to Canada without any form of assistance from family, friends or the government.
“Our clients with the Refugee Services program are only the refugees who are coming into Canada with no other sponsorship,” fundraising and communications coordinator of Matthew House Brynn Brieda told the Algonquin Times in September.
“They don’t have a sponsorship family who’s helping them set up here. They basically cross the border with absolutely nothing, and are most of the time homeless.”
As the HousingWorks program keeps expanding and reaching more people, McDonald hopes less youth and young adults will have to go through similar situations as her.
“Someone like me, who, in my brain, was doing everything right – like, I had a job, I was getting money, I was doing everything right – I didn’t understand why I wasn’t getting a house, why it was so hard,” said McDonald. “I think for a lot of people, it is really discouraging.”