Women share insight into affordable housing barriers at NCO, YWCA research event

Christina Thomas was living in a shelter in Brampton, when she managed to secure affordable housing in London, Ont., sight unseen.

She was excited to be starting a new life, moving on from the precarious situation she was in.

“When I arrived, I moved into a place with a drug house nearby,” says Thomas. “I have children. What does that look like for my children?”

But because of affordable housing’s high demand and severe shortage, Thomas had no choice but to live in a dangerous, stressful environment.

“You’re fearful that if you reject that one offer, now you’re back at the bottom of the list, so you take what is offered to you thankfully, however, what risk does that include?” she says.

Following her time in London, Thomas was relocated to housing in St. Catharines. She shared her experience as one of several panelists and researchers discussing the findings of a study on affordable housing for women in Niagara arising out of a partnership between Brock University’s Niagara Community Observatory (NCO) and YWCA Niagara Region. The event was held Wednesday, June 22 on Brock’s main campus.

The study focuses on the experiences of women navigating the affordable housing system, who relayed their personal accounts in focus groups during the research process.

“As one of the focus group facilitators, I was very moved by the traumatic stories the participants shared,” Assistant Professor of Political Science Joanne Heritz, the NCO’s lead researcher on the project, told the gathering. “There is a desperate need for all of us in Niagara to listen to, and address, the housing needs of the most vulnerable families in our community.”

YWCA Niagara Region Executive Director Elisabeth Zimmermann said the ways in which women experience homelessness, which is different than their male counterparts, is not always understood.

She said barriers to gaining adequate housing are made more complex by women’s Indigeneity, race, sexuality, ability and age, among other factors.

From the consultations, the team identified and pursued four research themes: affordability, trauma, safety and discrimination.

“Affordability, coupled with a critical lack of resources, was the most heavily stressed barrier in our focus groups,” said NCO research assistant Katie Keays.

Feedback from the women on affordability indicated:

  • Social assistance payments that are “brutally low,” failing to take cost of living into consideration.
  • Rental rooms, which don’t accommodate the needs of children, have lower prices but still exceed what is affordable on low-income budgets.
  • Sharing living space with strangers is “nerve-racking and one of the scariest things.”
  • Providing first and last months’ rent, and utility deposits, are major barriers.

Concerning trauma, NCO research assistant Tara Dekker said, “In the many lives of individuals experiencing homelessness and core housing needs, childhood trauma and intimate partner violence are not far off.”

Participants’ comments on trauma indicated:

  • Alcohol or substance abuse is a way of coping with the pain of intimate partner violence and/or childhood trauma in some cases.
  • Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health challenges make it more difficult to find an affordable home.
  • Low-income and homeless people often end up in precarious environments, triggering their mental health challenges.

On the topic of safety, participants indicated:

  • Safe housing is clean, has regular maintenance, and issues are addressed adequately and in a timely manner.
  • Security – extra locks, cameras, not living on the ground floor – is key to safe housing, especially to avoid abusive ex-partners and recover from past trauma.
  • Not living in neighbourhoods plagues by drug abuse or violence.

Feedback on discrimination indicated:

  • Many landlords assume the worst when women are coming from a shelter.
  • Women are frequently denied housing due to race or immigration status; some East Indian women reported being housed in crowded conditions because of the assumption of that being the case in their country of origin.
  • Single women also face discrimination, as well as trans women.

The research team also explored other barriers, including credit and background checks, sexual harassment, extensive wait lists that displace people from city to city far away from family and friends, and supports being withdrawn if women try to save money or find employment, among others.

The NCO will be releasing its policy brief “Improving Safe and Affordable Housing for Women and Gender-Diverse People During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic” at the end of summer.

In the meantime, the team has produced a snapshot of the findings.

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