The first time they found housing in Collingwood, the situation ended with maggots, mice, and eviction.
Alex (he asked his last name not be used), 19, and Rayne (she asked her real name not be used), 20, have bounced around since their mid-teens, being off-and-on homeless in various municipalities in Simcoe County for the past two years, with Collingwood being their main home base.
The young couple put a face on homelessness in Simcoe County. Even though youth make up only 13% of the county’s population, among those experiencing homeless in the county, 35% are youth. (See Part 2 tomorrow for more about the scope and magnitude of the problem.)
“My parents wanted me to grow up, marry a man and do a woman’s job and I said 'no; it’s not happening like that,'” says Alex, who is transgender.
Alex was born in Port Elgin, Ont. and raised on a small family farm.
“It was always difficult because I didn’t feel... I was the human I was. I didn’t feel like I was part of the family ever because... I didn’t feel like a female, I felt like a male,” he says.
Alex says the only way to grow up in his hometown was to be raised in the home, go to high school, get your own place, go to college and get a good job. An openly-LGBT community didn’t exist there, he says.
“It was very strict,” says Alex.
Despite the environment, Alex would tell his family regularly about his feelings, which didn’t go over well with his parents.
“My mom and my Nana would bicker about it constantly,” he says. “When my Nana passed away, (my parents) kind of took control of the situation, and that’s when things got really bad.”
Alex says his mother, an abuser of drugs and alcohol, would turn her abuse toward him growing up. He says his parents would kick him out regularly for a week to two weeks at a time, specifically when he would bring up being transgender, which is what started his foray into life on the street.
From the time Alex was 13 until he was 16 and left home for the last time, he says he was in and out of mental health facilities at the urging of his parents, who refused to accept him.
“I did counselling and therapy sessions because my family wanted to ‘correct my mind,’” he says.
After years of being forced into therapy, Alex had had enough.
“When I went to the end-of-session visit, the doctor told my parents, ‘He’s not coming home.’ My parents (corrected him) and said ‘She.’ The doctor said, ‘No, he’s a he. Enough is enough. He does not feel safe at home.”
“There was distance (between my family and I). I was pushed away because of who I was. I didn’t think that was fair to me. I felt accepted by (Rayne),” says Alex.
Alex and Rayne met in Bruce County, both working at a local restaurant. Initially they were just friends, but eventually, throughout all the trials and tribulations life dealt them, they became more.
When Alex decided he had finally had enough at 16, he had already met Rayne. As Rayne had grown up in Collingwood, the duo decided to move there.
“If I would have stayed... the abuse would have just got worse,” says Alex. “From there, it’s been an off-and-on struggle.”
Running out of options
Rayne first came to Collingwood when she was a child.
“My dad dropped me off on my mom’s doorstep in Collingwood when I was eight,” says Rayne. “I was very sheltered until I was at least 13.”
Rayne ran away from home when she was 15. She says she used to stay in abandoned factories on High Street.
“It’s a complicated story. I ran away with my ex-boyfriend because I believed that my dad was too hard on me,” says Rayne. “I don’t believe it now. I chose to be homeless over having a home.”
Rayne then got pregnant while homeless.
“I moved in with a family friend of mine who was very generous and loving. She helped us whenever she could,” she says.
At one point while living with her friend, Rayne attempted suicide.
“In my mind at the time, I had nobody. My boyfriend at the time was a drug addict. He was the complete opposite of a guy a parent would want their kid to (date). He made me feel like I was losing my mind,” she says.
After Rayne gave birth to the baby, she decided to give him up for adoption.
“At the time, we were still facing risks of being homeless,” she says. Rayne says when she called apartments for viewings to try to start a life for her new family, she was told she sounded too young.
“I wanted to keep him, but I couldn’t keep him if I didn’t have a place to live,” she says. “Most of the time I would be told that people didn’t want to rent to anyone under the age of 18, or 21. It always left me with a dead end.”
Starting fresh in Collingwood
“We first moved to Collingwood when Home Horizons (the Barbara Weider House) first started. All these new programs were coming up and there was actually availability. I told (Alex), they have all this stuff that Port Elgin doesn’t have. Now I’m kind of wrong, but I wasn’t then!” laughs Rayne.
“At the time, there were really good resources (there). There were lots of people in Housing Resources, now I think there’s one or two and it’s by appointment only. There used to be four people there at all times,” she says.
Alex and Rayne used all the services that were available in Collingwood at the time and managed to get a place on First Street as well as jobs almost right away.
That winter was when things started to change for the couple.
“Our apartment was always clean, but one morning I came out of the bedroom and there were maggots all over the floor,” says Alex. “I checked all the cupboards and made sure nothing was open, and there wasn’t. I called (our landlord) and left him a voicemail letting him know I had poured bleach down the halls (to keep the maggots at bay).”
The next day the couple still hadn’t heard from their landlord so they called the Town of Collingwood to try to get the issue resolved.
At this point, mice had also broken into the apartment through the ceiling in the bathroom.
After three weeks, nothing had been done and the couple had been living in the apartment with towels and duct tape around their bedroom door to keep the mice and maggots out. The couple recalled the odour was awful and the condition was so bad that it made both Alex and Rayne sick to the point of having to be hospitalized.
“The municipality couldn’t do anything, Ontario Works couldn’t do anything and the Landlord and Tenant Board couldn’t do anything. Eventually we were evicted,” says Alex.
In February of 2017, Alex and Rayne became completely homeless. They bounced around from shelter to shelter from Barrie all the way to Orangeville depending on who had space on any given night.
There were many nights where no one had space. On those nights, the duo would have to get creative.
“Tim Hortons are great, unless they kick you out, or the workers aren’t too nice,” says Alex. “In Collingwood there are multiple forests. I would make little teepees out of cheap tarps and sleeping bags.”
Despite dealing with a trying situation, Alex points out that the kindness of Collingwood residents didn’t change, even when he would encounter them out on morning walks.
“Sometimes people would walk by and just say, ‘Good morning!’” laughs Alex. “When I was homeless in Port Elgin, if I had to sleep in the woods people would walk by and scream at me or call the cops.”
“It’s an everyday thing for people in Collingwood to see, I guess – kids living out in the bush.”
Alex and Rayne have been friends for four years, together as a couple for three.
Their ages have made apartment hunting a problem, as most landlords won’t even show apartments to potential tenants they think might be under 20, even if they have first and last month’s rent.
“There’s a lot of kids who come to the library who are off-and-on homeless. Their parents will kick them out. All teenagers make mistakes,” says Alex, adding there have been times when 12 or more youths under the age of 20 are all living homeless in the Collingwood area at any given time.
Judging a book by its cover
Alex thinks the youth homelessness issue in Collingwood is due to a variety of factors including a lack of jobs, a lack of resources and a general lack of trust in teenagers.
“They’ll judge us before they even get to know us,” says Rayne. “I look very young... and I look very tough, I think. I’ve had (people tell me) I come off very hostile. I don’t mean to.”
“I look like I’m 12,” laughs Alex. “Many times I would go for job interviews in Collingwood and be told, ‘I don’t want a kid working for me.’”
While Alex and Rayne both tried to find housing and jobs, it was difficult to look and sound presentable when they were tired from sleeping outdoors and carrying odours due to not having access to a shower.
“They also want an address too, when you get a job,” adds Alex. “As a prep cook, I can’t go sleep out in the mud, not have a shower in the morning and then go to work covered in mud smelling like outdoors. I tried that a couple of times and got fired from my jobs.”
“I’ve tried my best by going into a Tim Hortons bathroom to clean myself up in the sink before an interview, put on dress pants and a button down and still. There’s not much I can do.”
They relayed one story of having another place in Collingwood secured this past summer, but being taken for a ride.
“We had paid a $200 deposit for a place, we just had to wait a weekend before moving in. So we used our last $200 to stay in a hotel for the weekend,” says Alex. “I called the landlord to make sure we were all set to move in Monday and she said no, somebody else had already moved in.”
That landlord refused to give them back their deposit.
“Most places, you have to have credit to get a place. I’ve never had a credit card. I’ve never had insurance. They want job records. They want a letter from your employer,” says Alex.
“A lot of places also won’t accept (people who are on) Ontario Works,” adds Rayne.
According to the couple, they used the Salvation Army’s emergency housing services from time to time, but there were caveats to care there.
“They would only give us two or three days at a time consecutively,” says Rayne. The couple would spend all their time while in the shelter calling other shelters from Bruce County to Orangeville to find spaces for the next nights.
“Nobody could help us. Nobody could do anything. How does that give us any time to plan, generate or do anything?” says Rayne.
“They would put us up at Pleasant Manor, which is in the middle of nowhere. We had no money. How were we supposed to get back to Collingwood to even do anything? We could never get ahead of ourselves,” she says.
While Home Horizons is in place for youth in Collingwood trying to get a leg up, Alex says the seven beds at the Barbara Weider House are always full and they have a large waiting list. Alex and Rayne have been trying to get in since September, but their calls haven’t been returned.
“We would get one step ahead and then get kicked back 15 steps,” says Alex.
Help on the Horizon?
Unfortunately, Alex and Rayne’s story isn’t unique in Collingwood.
Kaitlyn Bernath, co-ordinator of teen services and outreach at the Collingwood Public Library, confirms that the issues Alex and Rayne are facing are common within the youth homeless population in Collingwood, which is why, since she took on the job six months ago, she decided to start an action group to try to come up with real solutions.
“Every time there’s a meeting, more organizations are added. We’re growing in scope. It’s a good thing,” says Bernath.
The action group meets monthly to brainstorm ideas on how to help the youth homelessness situation, as well as informing each other on exactly what services they all offer so everyone is on the same page in the event they need to do referrals. Currently, representatives from Youth Justice Services, the YMCA of Simcoe Muskoka, My Friend’s House, Home Horizons, Youth Haven, the Collingwood and Blue Mountains detachment of the OPP and Collingwood Youth Centre all attend. Bernath also arranged for Kim Archer, a youth outreach worker with Youth Haven, to come spend Mondays at the Collingwood library to provide emergency help and resources if needed.
“It’s really tumultuous for (the kids) right now with winter coming. Their stress levels are at an all-time high,” says Bernath. “When they come to me, they have no food, no money, no place to stay. And they’re just looking for help.”
According to Bernath, sometimes mental health issues are part of the picture as well, so sitting down to make 20 phone calls trying to find housing, apartments or jobs is extremely difficult.
“And when they have no means of transportation, how do they go to apartment viewings?” she says.
Bernath says it’s extremely common for homeless youth to spend their entire days at the library, from open until close.
“And when we close, they’re going outside,” she says.
It can feel defeating sometimes with groups of youth coming through and Bernath helping them get a leg up, only for them to leave and another group to take their place.
“For them... it has to be really exhausting,” she says. “They’re tired because they can’t sleep, and then they come here and try to make phone calls where they have to be professional and patient. I can’t imagine trying to do that on no sleep, no food and no shower.”
Bernath confirms Alex and Rayne’s experiences dealing with people at area shelters.
“Last week I tried to make a few calls on behalf of one of the teens. I was treated so rudely,” says Bernath, clarifying they were shelters outside of the Collingwood area. “Sometimes I don’t know how some of these kids are still standing, being treated like they’re garbage.”
“It’s heartbreaking,” she says. “I’m a librarian, not a social worker. It’s tough. But hopefully, we’ll get some more solutions for them.”
In one of the recent brainstorming sessions, the group was trying to come up with out-of-the-box ideas to make sure there are no homeless teen deaths this year.
“When I talk to the youth about it, they feel that nobody cares,” says Bernath. “When I talked to one of the girls about it, she said, ‘What if I do freeze to death? Nobody cares. It’s not going to matter.’”
It can be scarier when a teen who shows up everyday at the library just stops showing up one day, leaving Bernath to wonder if they’re OK.
“The sad part is, even if we got crazy amounts of funding and awareness going to get an emergency shelter in Collingwood, it wouldn’t happen for a long time,” she says.
Bernath kept track for the month of October of how many times she fed a homeless youth, called a landlord on behalf of a homeless youth and called shelters. It came out to 26 times.
“That’s not including how much Kim does when she’s here on a Monday,” she says.
Archer has worked with Youth Haven for a year and a half, trying to help homeless youth in Barrie, Orillia, Midland, Alliston and Innisfil. Through funding from the County of Simcoe, there are two caseworkers assigned to each area.
“We don’t normally do Collingwood... we don’t have the funding for that just yet. But, because (Bernath) asked, it’s really hard to say no,” says Archer. “We’re trying to branch out because Youth Haven is the only emergency youth shelter in the County of Simcoe.”
Archer finds it commendable that the Collingwood library has taken a different approach than other areas.
“Instead of pushing kids out and forcing them to fend for themselves... they tried a different approach by bringing in some services they can access,” says Archer.
Archer estimates that, since starting working with youth in Collingwood in June, she has probably advocated for about 15 different kids.
“And that’s only coming once a week, and that’s only helping the youth that actually know I’m here,” she says.
While seeing youth living homeless is just a part of the job for Archer, she was surprised by the cost of living in Collingwood and sees it as a major factor contributing to youth homelessness in the area.
“You really can’t be poor or marginalized and survive in Collingwood,” she says. “Collingwood is not set up to help a lot of the under-privileged.”
To find out what’s happened to Alex and Rayne, as well as read details on Simcoe County’s first ever county-wide homelessness study and an interview with Dwayne O'Connor of Home Horizons, watch for Part 2 of this series, on CollingwoodToday tomorrow.