AMHERST – Alison Lair feels it’s time to shake the tree on homelessness in Amherst.
The community support co-ordinator with the YMCA of Cumberland spoke to Amherst Rotarians on Monday about the Homelessness Prevention and Outreach Program that recently began working with homeless people in the community.
“It’s an issue that we have to begin taking seriously in our community,” Lair said. “When you consider that 36 per cent of the people in Cumberland County make less than $20,000 a year after taxes and somehow have to support themselves it’s understandable that there could be an issue with stable housing.”
Lair said her program is based on the Housing First concept that started in New York City in the 1990s that essentially works to get homeless into stable housing before treating underlying issues such as mental health or dependency on alcohol or drugs.
Housing First, she said, is the only real option for homeless people in rural Nova Scotia because there are no emergency shelters. While setting up a shelter in a place like Amherst isn’t an issue, ensuring there’s stable funding to operate it is another issue and the reason why shelters fail in other communities.
One of the key goals of the program, she said, is homelessness prevention.
“It’s a lot easier and cheaper to prevent homelessness than it is to correct after someone becomes homeless,” she said.
Part of the program would be to provide life skills training such as budgeting and economic and social integration into the community so participants will begin to feel as they belong in the community.
The need is there, she said. Since September, when the program began, Lair has worked with 23 individuals who could be defined as homeless. Three people were living in cars, one was living in a tent, another was roaming the streets of Amherst and another two had recently been evicted with no place to go.
Another three were couch-surfing, or moving from place to place to keep a roof over their head.
She said there are a number of significant barriers to preventing homelessness including the cost of rent. In a lot of cases, rents are at least $600 a month and many on social assistance only receive just over $500 a month in support.
There are stigmas and prejudices attached to the homeless and those living on income support, while another barrier to those seeking a place to live is a list that landlords have about tenants they’ve had issues with such as damaging property, poor behaviour or for being in arrears for rent. Lair doesn’t blame landlords for having such a list, but says once a tenant gets on the list it’s nearly impossible to find a place to live.
She said one of her roles is to be an advocate for people in these situations and to work with landlords, if possible, on housing arrangements or with provincial departments on a case by case basis.
Lair said it’s hard for people on assistance to support stable housing when more than 30 per cent of their monthly cheque is used to pay the rent, while a large portion of these people are living in homes and apartments that are below standard, or inadequate, in one way or another.
There are solutions out there, but she said they require a community response as well as provincial and federal support through initiatives such as a living wage and the national housing strategy that she hopes will provide affordable housing.