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Survey of Hamilton's homeless aims to help city's most vulnerable

Volunteers are collecting information about the experiences of homeless people to paint the nuanced picture of who in Hamilton is homeless, and what can be done to help them. And the data collected can help decision-makers prioritize who needs help most.

20,000 Homes effort underway in Hamilton, one of three pilot cities, this week

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      The last year and a half, especially the last few months, have streamlined Bruce Paton's daily goals:

      Survive.

      Paton is 74 and has been living in the Good Shepherd men's shelter for four months. He's been homeless for a year and a half, bouncing from family couches to shelter beds. His pension from his work at an advertising agency is $730 a month, and he pays $500 of it to support his wife's share of housing costs at his daughter's house.

      Bruce Paton said he hopes his participation in the survey will help others. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
      A few months ago, "I got up in the morning, all of a sudden I felt rotten," Paton said. "I fell. They got me in an ambulance right away." 

      Doctors told him his aorta had broken in his belly. A few more minutes without help — say, if Paton had been on the street, alone — and he wouldn't have survived, they told him.

      "I'm alive," he said Sunday, sitting down to a dinner of macaroni and cheese, salad and pie in the shelter mess hall.

      "It hasn't been bad for me," he said, though he had tears in his eyes as he talked. "I'm in a different position than most of these people are." 

      Paton had just come from being surveyed in an effort the city is undergoing this week to interview people about their history of homelessness, health, economic and social situations. 

      His responses will be added to hundreds of others participating in the 20,000 Homes campaign to paint the nuanced picture of who in Hamilton is homeless, and what can be done to help them. And the data collected can help decision-makers prioritize who needs help most. The city will unveil the survey results Thursday. 

      Hamilton joins Ottawa and Waterloo as pilot cities for the campaign, which will be formally launched in June nationwide. Collecting the data is aimed at helping homeless service providers and governments target their aid directly at what's needed in Hamilton, rather than general one-size-fits-all programs. 

      The effort is modeled on a successful campaign in the U.S. called 100,000 Homes, and the Canadian effort aims to find permanent homes for 20,000 of the most vulnerable people across the country. Participants in the survey were thanked for their time with a $10 Tim Horton's card.

      'It's so tough to find suitable housing'

      It's kind of wonderful to see how many people are willing to spend part of their weekend helping Hamilton's most vulnerable.- Lorne Pearce, city of Hamilton housing services

      Scott Banner is a caseworker at the Good Shepherd shelter. He hopes the survey lights a fire under decision-makers to help find solutions for the men he works with, many of whom are frustrated by their housing options, or lack thereof, using a $376 allotment from Ontario Works.

      "We hear, 'Get these guys housed' but there's not adequate, suitable housing," he said. "It's so tough to find suitable housing." 

      The city asked for volunteers, and staff were nervous they wouldn't get enough. But more than 200 applications came in — more than double the number needed, said city housing services staff member Lorne Pearce.

      "It's kind of wonderful to see how many people are willing to spend part of their weekend helping Hamilton's most vulnerable," Pearce said. 

      Erica Hall lives near Tim Hortons Field and decided to volunteer when she read a news article about the effort.

      "When I see people on the street, I always want to talk to them, but I'm always too busy," she said. 

      At a training session Sunday, Ted McMeekin, a local MPP and the minister of housing, said the work the volunteers were preparing to do is "almost holy." McMeekin said the names of three Toronto men who died in the elements this winter are "tattooed on my conscience." He pledged $50,000 to help the 20,000 Homes effort continue.

      Not 'one homogenous demographic'

      Kyle Malcolm, 24, said he promised himself as a teen he'd never wind up in a shelter as an adult. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)
      Cameron Thompson, 61, is staying at the Good Shepherd shelter and has been "hard-core homeless" for the last 12 years. He said he was eager to do the survey and talk with a reporter.

      "These people are not stupid, even if they're doing stupid things in their addictions or whatever," he said. "We don't count. When you're in these circumstances, nobody ever listens to you. So, you get a chance to give your views, do a survey, you take it." 

      "The people who want to solve the problem tend to think we're one homogenous demographic," Thompson added. 

      David Cockett, sitting nearby at dinner, said he became homeless when he had to pay two months' rent to move out of his apartment in a building geared for seniors. He said he moved because a person died in the apartment next to his, and the body was rotting for days. 

      "There's no way I could've stayed there," he said. Now Cockett, 67, is trying to save up to get into an apartment again. 

      Same for Kyle Malcolm, 24. He spent much of his teenage years in shelters and always promised himself he wouldn't end up there as an adult. But he was living without a formal lease in a basement suite and an argument with his landlord found him kicked out. Now he wants to finish high school and maybe find a job helping other young people avoid some of the problems he's hand. 

      He said participating in the survey was "bittersweet": He was happy to help, but he hopes he's already found his footing again by the time the lessons learned in the survey are implemented.

      Thompson said he hopes the effort leads to permanent help for people. He's received short-term assistance to rent apartments a few times, but it hasn't stuck.

      "You don't stop being homeless until you are at home somewhere," he said. 

      kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

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