No longer homeless: How Buddy and Maureen went from sleeping in a field to a new apartment

The story of how two of the city's 70-some people prioritized for housing this year moved from sleeping outdoors for eight months to a two-bedroom place with a roof over their heads.

The story of two of the city's 70-some people prioritized for housing this year

Maureen McShane and Buddy Doyle, platonic companions, moved into this two-bedroom apartment Sept. 1 after living for eight months without a home. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Every night, for many months this year, Buddy Doyle and Maureen McShane walked with their dogs, Kilo and Wiggles, quietly to bed.

We cried a lot, the two of us. Like, wondering if we were ever going to get out of the hole.- Maureen McShane , 55

In a grassy field near Rymal Road, under massive hydro poles, they'd set up to sleep:

Cardboard, blankets, Buddy and Maureen (and Kilo and Wiggles), more blankets, tarp.

They tried to make the best of it – breathing fresh air, thinking of birds and rabbits as companions.

But the upsides didn't always distract them from the cloud.

"We cried a lot, the two of us," Maureen, 55, said. "Like, wondering if we were ever going to get out of the hole."

Maureen and Buddy kept two dogs, Kilo and Wiggles, with them while they were homeless. Here, Kilo follows a friend's cat down the hall. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

They'd call about apartment listings, but nothing worked out.

"At the time, it felt like the hole was getting deeper. And the dirt wasn't getting replaced," Buddy, 58, said.

A horseshoe on the wall

The two relied on each other to get through. They weren't willing to split up, or get rid of the dogs. They didn't fit the mold, and couldn't be helped by traditional homeless services.

But on Sept. 1, they moved indoors, to a two-bedroom apartment in the east end, their time sleeping on cardboard in a field over.

They are just two of roughly 70 people benefiting this year from a new and highly successful approach to combating homelessness Hamilton has adopted. In recent years the focus has moved away from shelters and emergency housing to looking at individuals and removing the barriers in the way of each homeless person regaining stability.

For Buddy and Maureen, after what felt like ages of living outside, word of their living arrangement got to someone who could help connect them with a housing placement.

 They each pay $400 to split the rent.

They take joy in their newfound ability to keep groceries in the fridge and freezer. They're still sleeping on blankets on the floor, for now, until free beds from Sleep Country arrive.

Housing first 

They're slowly but surely furnishing their apartment with things they've been given or found. They've carefully hung a few pictures and knick-knacks saved from the home they lost, and a few items they found in their time in the field. 

On the wall in the kitchen are several items foraged from their life outdoors: A Union Jack flag, a couple of lanyards, a cross or two.

And a horseshoe. Buddy found it in June, just as their fates were turning.

"I don't know if it brought me any luck, I think it did, because that's when everything came into play, and I'm gonna keep it that way," he said.

Nailed to the wall is a horseshoe, two lanyards, two crosses and a Union Jack Buddy and Maureen found in the field. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Buddy and Maureen are two of about 70 people so far this year to be housed under the city's "housing first" efforts.

Hamilton 'showing what works'

The number of so-called "chronically homeless" people who've been experiencing homelessness for six months or longer dropped 35 per cent between 2014 and 2015.

"What Hamilton's doing is showing what works to reduce homelessness," said Tim Richter, president and CEO of the alliance. "It can certainly be looked at as a model for the rest of Ontario."

Maureen said having the animals with them helped them sleep better, knowing they'd be awoken if anyone approached. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

But Buddy and Maureen's story is also a reminder that the numbers the city can track don't represent everyone.

"I can't say that fewer people in Hamilton are homeless because we only know what we know about who's using our system," said Amanda DiFalco, who runs the city of Hamilton's homelessness services.

"What we don't know are how many people are experiencing hidden homelessness."

'When I came out, everything was gone'

The living-outdoors chapter began last winter when Maureen's adult son, who was staying with her and Buddy in a subsidized townhouse, didn't complete the required paperwork to be allowed to stay there.

When the sheriff came to evict them, Maureen had pneumonia.

"The sheriff showed up at the door and ended up calling an ambulance for me to go to the hospital," Maureen said.

"I was in there for 10 days, and when I came out, everything was gone. My whole house was just empty. They had emptied it out. Threw everything that we owned out."

Cynthia MacDonald, left, works for Wesley Urban Ministries as a case manager for the Transitions to Home program, which typically houses single men. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Buddy, a onetime beau of Maureen's but now a platonic companion, took their dogs and slept in a dumpster for the first time.

After she got out of the hospital, the two found a place to sleep in Billy Sherring Park. But the police got a complaint and kicked them out. They'd bum a night or two at a friend's house, but no one they knew, not even any of Maureen's five sons, really had room for two adults and two dogs.

They were fearful of staying in shelters, and co-ed options were limited without kids.

'They knew we were there'

So the hydro field it was.

"We were very low-profile, so that we didn't interrupt the people that lived there in the houses beside," Maureen said. "We respected them, they respected us. They knew we were there."

Sometimes neighbours or shop-owners would give them slices of pizza or spare change. Some people were rude, assuming they knew the pair's back story had something to do with drugs or alcohol.

Sometimes it rained.

"We're sleeping under a tarp, right? And the tarp was filling with water on the top, and heavy, and coming down," Maureen said.

"We got soaked, saturated. We were freezing and cold, and we had to basically take the clothes we were wearing and dry off in the daytime."

Maureen got pneumonia again, went back to the hospital. Both she and Buddy have COPD. This time they asked her if she wanted to be resuscitated if anything went wrong.

"I just kinda went, 'Whoa. What?'" she said. "You really don't know how long you have to live."

'Now we can say that we are home'

A social worker that Buddy knew from a few years earlier found out they were living outside, and told a caseworker at Wesley Urban Ministries about them. Wesley's contract with the city's housing first program typically only covers single men, but the two wanted to stay together.

Cynthia MacDonald, a caseworker for Wesley's Transitions to Homes program, took on the challenge, petitioning her boss to try to work out a way for Buddy and Maureen to be housed.

And Sept. 1, after several months of false starts and bumps in the road, Buddy, Maureen, Kilo and Wiggles moved into the apartment.

Maureen's bedroom while she waits for a bed. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The building manager took such a liking to her new tenants she found them a dining room table and four chairs. A friend is planning to sell them his couch at the end of the month. 

And they're finally letting themselves take a deep breath. They give lots of credit to MacDonald, and the other caseworker that was looking out for them.

"It's been a really long, hard haul for us, but now we can say we are home," Maureen said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett