All posts by Narmeen Hashim

About Narmeen Hashim

Narmeen is CERA's Ottawa Program Officer

Making Room

*Note the names used in this blog entry have been changed to protect the identity of our clients.

While working at CERA, I am continually inspired by the strength of our clients and their abilities to persevere through complex situations. In July 2009, Asma, a single Persian mother of 4, contacted CERA because her landlord in Windsor was threatening to evict her and her family.

Prior to moving to the apartment building, Asma had lived in a neighbourhood in Windsor characterized by poverty and crime. It was a neighbourhood where her disabled child was constantly harassed, and her other children got into fights defending him.

Asma’s husband passed away from cancer 6 years ago. Since then, she has struggled to make ends meet but remained determined to keep her family together.

After repeatedly listening to Asma’s concerns about the neighbourhood she was living in, her friend Darina, invited Asma and her family to live with her in the apartment where she lived. This would allow the two single women to care for their children while continuing to work, a custom common to their culture and beneficial to Asma who works late hours as a custodian. The apartment had 3 bedrooms and was large enough for the women and their children.

In June 2009, Darina’s husband, who was living in Toronto, found employment and asked Darina and her daughter to relocate to Toronto. This left Asma and her children living in the unit but with no rights to occupy it as they were not on the lease. To address this, Asma asked the building’s superintendent if she could apply for membership. The super said that would be fine.

However, when Asma applied, she was as automatically denied membership because the building’s property management company had a minimum income requirement. The property manager said that, because she did not make a minimum of $35,000.00/year, Asma would end up defaulting on her rent. She explained to the manager that she worked as many hours as she could, but she would never be able to make that amount of money. She assured him that she had always paid her rent on time and in full, and that she had excellent landlord references and credit. The property manager maintained that he had made his decision, and that Asma and her family would be evicted.

Deeply concerned for her family’s safety and well being, Asma contacted CERA. CERA staff contacted the property manager to investigate the situation. The manager said that not only would Asma be a financial risk, but that she might not “fit in” with the rest of the building. CERA staff explained the company’s obligations under the Human Rights Code and the implications of the eviction (evicting a family of 4 into homelessness does not even give them the option of transitional housing at a family shelter). Large families are not usually given space at a shelter, but instead are forced live in a motel where nutrition, schooling and safety are potentially compromised.

The following months were filled with fear and anxiety for Asma. She had been in a motel in the past with her family, and was terrified of being in that position again. CERA staff had lengthy conversations with her assuring her that we would do our best not to let the property manager evict her into homelessness.

After it became clear that the property management company would not compromise on its minimum income policy, CERA assisted Asma in filing an application with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. While this process was underway, a new company took over at the building. The new property manager contacted CERA confused about why Asma had not been added to the lease.

Shortly after this, the new property management company added Asma and her family to the lease.

I will never forget the phone call I received that day from Asma. Her voice was full of joy and relief.

Asma is now living happily – and securely – in the building. She has always paid her rent on time and is happy to help her neighbours while continuing to work full-time and care for her children.

Superhero’s come in all shapes and sizes; this one is 5 feet tall, her skin has an olive glow, her hair is covered paisley patterned fabric, and her name is Asma.

Youth in the House!

Youth homelessness has been a growing concern at CERA. With a housing crisis gripping communities across Canada and huge waiting lists for affordable housing, this particularly vulnerable group is getting an even shorter end of a short stick.

The common assumption when viewing street youth is “You punks get a job!” or “Get rid of the attitude and go back home.” What people do not realize is that youth on the street are rarely there by choice. They are often forced to leave an abusive or oppressive household or care facility. Many have never had a home or family. After foster care hopping, many youth eventually decide a life of streets may be the safest choice.

Over the past 3 months, CERA Ottawa, with the support of the Law Foundation of Ontario, has offered a weekly outreach program at Operation Come Home, a youth drop-in facility in the downtown core. This program enables us to bring our services directly to the youth who need them. While speaking about housing and discrimination issues, youth often share experiences that are both heartbreaking and inspirational. Many of the youth we speak with have been in and out of foster care and group homes and have survived numerous instances of abuse. Despite this, they are now doing their best to “make life happen.” 

I find it inspirational to watch these young souls doing their best at 17 to write a resume, apply for jobs, start their own business, call landlords and find an apartment, meet their social assistance worker, attend to health needs, and take care of daily hygiene, nutrition and sleep requirements – all while balancing mental health issues from years of abuse. I know many individuals (and I’m sure you do too), who at 20, with the emotional and financial support of their parents and family, can hardly get it together. Society hardly blinks at them, while the youth of the street are barked at for being “lazy.”

In the last session I posed the question, “what does it mean to be homeless in lower town?” The responses were interesting. A female participant, aged 18, responded eagerly, stating that “Living in lower town makes it easy to be homeless.” She continued, “The Salvation Army will give you sleeping bags for free, you can eat for free at a number of drop-ins, and you can shower at the YSB [Youth Service Bureau].” While these services are critical, the young woman emphasized that, “We need more services that actually help us get a home.” Another participant, male, aged 22, added, “when you’re homeless, Ontario Works only gives you $200.00 for your basic needs. Try eating three meals a day for a month with $200.00. It doesn’t work. But if I had a home, I could maybe buy enough Kraft dinner to last me a month, and I could cook food from the food bank.”  

The youth maintained that the most important thing in their lives is a safe, clean, and affordable home. With a housing allowance of $356/month, rental options are scarce. Many youth end up in rooming houses. A female youth, who had been homeless on and off for five years, stated, “You don’t know what it’s like to live in a dirty rooming house, with mice and cockroaches, and creepy unknowns opening your door in the middle of the night; it’s not safe, and it makes you feel sad. That is where I live.”

A male participant, aged 19, stated, “We need a system that works, more services that help us find housing we can afford, and landlords who will actually rent to us.” He continued, “I finally found a landlord that would rent to me, but because Ontario Works thinks I’m homeless, they only give me $200.00/month. When I tried to contact my worker to say I found a landlord that will rent to me, and to please give me my housing allowance, my worker took so long to call me back that the landlord rented to someone else.”

The youth we meet face a number of barriers to housing which can make homelessness almost inevitable. There is nothing easy about being young without a secure, stable, safe, and affordable place to live. The barriers in the social welfare system combined with the discrimination they face for being part of societies “unwanted” often make a life on the streets the only option.

So, when you encounter a young person on the street, don’t be quick to make assumptions. Take time to ask how they are doing, and if they know where they can find the services they need. Don’t be afraid to smile or share what’s in your heart and your pocket. The world needs change.