'It's nice to have a roof over my head in the winter,' says pair who used to sleep in a field

A year and a half ago, Buddy and Maureen moved in to a two-bedroom apartment in Hamilton’s east end after living in a hydro field for eight months. Now they have Christmas decorations up, and a feeling that they're home.

'Having a home again, it’s so much nicer here,' says Maureen McShane, who slept outdoors for much of 2016

Maureen McShane and Buddy Doyle have been living in an east-end apartment for more than a year after spending most of 2016 sleeping in a hydro field. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

For most of last year, she would get ready to sleep by setting up layers of cardboard and blankets, a tarp over top to keep out the rain and snow. 

But now, Maureen McShane crawls into a bed, indoors. Her roommate, Buddy Doyle, sleeps in a futon in the living room.

Having a home again — it's so much nicer here.- Maureen McShane, formerly homeless woman now housed in Hamilton

They have Christmas decorations up and food in the fridge. Buddy found a ceramic Christmas tree abandoned outside. It's now their kitchen table centerpiece.

A little over a year ago, McShane and Doyle moved in to a two-bedroom apartment in Hamilton's east end.

"I love the place," she said earlier this month. "I really like having a fridge and a stove, and being able to cook meals. Having a home again — it's so much nicer here."

Buddy Doyle and Maureen McShane moved in to a two-bedroom apartment in Hamilton’s east end after living in a hydro field for eight months. 1:15

A year and a half later, making an apartment their home

The pair lived outdoors for eight months with their dogs, Kilo and Wiggles.

They are among 327 people who've found places to live since spring 2016 under a city anti-homelessness approach called "housing first." Most of them — 80 per cent — are still in their housing 12 months later, according to the city.

The idea is that people are better able to address other life challenges once they have a stable place to sleep each night.

Fifteen months later, the pair seem to be proving the premise true.

In the year and a half since they moved in, McShane and Doyle have found little touches to make their apartment feel like a home, such as a Christmas tree dug out of a dumpster. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

McShane hasn't had to go to the hospital for pneumonia this year — something she had to do three times last year. She's gained some weight on her tiny frame.

"She's happy and she's healthy, and I think that really goes with stable housing," said Cynthia MacDonald, the case manager for Wesley Urban Ministries' Transitions to Homes program who helped McShane and Doyle find their place.

'They've really made it into a home'

MacDonald visits them every few months, helping them with government paperwork and setting up medical appointments, listening to them vent about whatever challenge they're facing.

They haven't lost their street-inspired resourcefulness. In addition to the Christmas tree, Buddy found a broken stereo and fixed it. And he foraged a couple of lamps he has yet to fix up.

"At the beginning, they couldn't believe they were housed," MacDonald said. "I think they've really made it into a home. I think they've really done well." 

There are things they both miss about being outside – not having bills to pay or neighbours to disagree with.

Maureen says thinks she might like to go camping this summer, just to feel the fresh air on her face in the morning.

But she remembers how, when they lived in a hydro field on the Mountain, she had to wash her clothes in splash pads, and wash her face in park bathrooms. Now they can just jump in the shower or the tub.

"I don't feel dirty," she said. "I don't feel ... like sometimes it would make me feel down."

'It's nice to have a roof over my head in the winter'

They've cut ties with most everyone they knew from living on the streets. They're not willing to let this apartment become a "flophouse" and risk losing it, they say.

They've set up their rent and hydro bills to be withdrawn directly from their Ontario Disability cheques for the same reason.

The pair say they're happier and healthier now, living indoors. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

"It's been a big change; it's been a big adjustment," McShane said. "It's nice to have a roof over my head in the winter."

They're planning to go to her son's place in St. Catharines, Ont., for Christmas dinner. Her grandchildren will be there.

And they have some reason to feel proud, and thankful.

"We're in a place," she said. "We're not out on the street."

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca

About the Author

Kelly Bennett

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Kelly Bennett is an award-winning reporter who lives in Hamilton. She grew up in Victoria and covered economics and arts as an investigative reporter in San Diego. She loves digging into great stories, hiking and playing the violin. Drop her a line anytime at kelly.bennett@cbc.ca.