Hamilton woman struggles to rebound from homelessness

58-year-old Diana Wood and her two children became homeless after her husband died 10 years ago. Her story underlines the problems faced by local women in need of social housing.
Diana Wood sleeps in her main floor living room on a lawn chair with a sleeping bag, with her important belongings at her side. She said documents and clothing have gone missing during the night when she's slept upstairs. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

Every time Diana Wood leaves her home, she brings everything she can carry.

One full laptop-sized backpack rests on her shoulder. One full purse-sized bag in her left hand. One full carrier with wheels. The stuffed bags easily overpower Wood, a petite woman with a slight frame.

She feels "unsafe" leaving her important items inside her 2-bedroom attached house in the city's east end. Wood said her "personal documents, information, clothes, laptop" have all gone missing.

Step inside her front door into her living room to find what she does leave in her house; toiletries and clothing in large, sealed plastic bags. She had bed bugs and still worries about them.

This is Diana Wood's life in city social housing, where she's been living for the past year. Before that, she was homeless.

"Across Canada, women are the fastest growing population of homeless," said Medora Uppal, director of operations at YWCA Hamilton. "It is a crisis."

After her husband died in 2003, Wood and her two children - who are now 26 and nearly 18 - were left only with a $400 monthly widow's pension from the government. Stories like this one are familiar to Hamilton, Uppal said.

She cited a May 2011 report by the Social Planning and Research Council that found 3,000 Hamilton women are homeless or have a precarious housing situation.

Over 300 women are turned away from Hamilton's women's shelters each month, Uppal said. At the YWCA where Uppal works, they have 65 emergency shelter beds for women and the beds are consistently full.

When women can't find a place to stay, Uppal said, many come up with "creative" ways of finding shelter. Wood knows that's true.

"I went wherever someone would take me in," she said. "I sometimes would stay on a couch overnight. I've shared a hotel with someone."

Wood resisted applying for social housing - she wanted to try on her own before finding the help - but wanted to find a place to bring her family back under one roof. She said it took over a year to be placed in this house, and she doesn't feel safe.

"I hate to say it is typical," said Tom Cooper, director of the Hamilton Poverty Roundtable. "The funding just isn't there."

Cooper said as a result of limited cash from federal and provincial governments, there is a nation-wide shortage of affordable housing. And, the buck falls on the municipality.

"The City of Hamilton is doing the best it can with limited resources," he said. "There should be a strategy for affordable housing for women."

Wood hoped her new house would bring her family back together after they were separated in the turmoil of homelessness - both her children "stayed where they could" when they had to give up their previous home.

"Our family got back together briefly," she said. "But by then the damage was done.... They're scarred [from homelessness]."

She does not have much contact with either of them. But Wood carries on, trying to find steady employment and move out of social housing into a rental property.

"I keep a positive attitude towards everything," she said.