This innovative Steinbach shelter is helping the homeless in rural Manitoba

A rural homelessness expert says Today House was one of the first real-world examples in Canada of a grassroots shelter strategy that's growing in communities across the country.

Today House, a home-based shelter, relies on community donations for its budget of roughly $65K a year

Sun shines through a window in one of the guest bedrooms at Today House, a home-based shelter in the southern Manitoba city of Steinbach. (Submitted by Simone Penner)

It could have been almost anybody that stopped to pick up Sidney Kitching, limping along the shoulder of the rural highway between Kleefeld, Man., and Steinbach, a 16-kilometre walk away, on a hot morning two years ago.

Kitching had been trying to flag down a ride, hobbling after reinjuring a previously broken knee about an hour into the roughly three-hour walk.

It was humid — he remembers it as 40 with the humidex, hot enough for a heat advisory — but he had to get to Steinbach to register for social assistance, since there's nowhere to do that in Kleefeld, the small southern Manitoba town where he'd been living at a friend's place for the past few months.

"Because I was behind in rent I had to sell my truck," he said. "So walking was the next alternative."

If it wasn't for Today House I'd probably still be on the streets.- Sidney Kitching

Finally, he had a stroke of luck that morning — Irene Kroeker, the director of Steinbach Community Outreach, pulled over to pick him up.

Kroeker called it a "fortuitous moment." People in Steinbach know to call her when they see somebody who may be homeless, and Kitching very nearly was. She'd gotten a call he was on the road — she can't remember from whom anymore — and got to him as soon as she could.

Kitching had been planning to sleep on a park bench that night, but Kroeker took him to Today House, a home-based emergency shelter in Steinbach that works closely with her outreach centre.

The shared space at Today House includes a sitting area and a dining table, complete with cozy blankets, reading material and a computer for guests to use. (Submitted by Simone Penner)

Born in Winnipeg and raised in Grunthal, Man., Kitching said he's lived in a lot of places. But before discovering Today House, his only experience with shelters was the hectic ones in Winnipeg.

The homey feel of Today House is completely different — but Kitching didn't even know the Steinbach shelter existed before going there.

"I'm very thankful — very, very thankful," Kitching said on a recent spring afternoon, sitting on a couch in the outreach centre after a cup of coffee and treats.

He still goes there often but he hasn't been homeless for years — not since the centre found him a rooming house to live in after his stay at the shelter.

"If it wasn't for Today House I'd probably still be on the streets."

'From the community up'

Today House is completely community-run, a shelter housed in a single-family home in a secret location in Steinbach, a southeastern Manitoba city roughly 50 kilometres from Winnipeg.

Guests can't just walk in — they have to call ahead or be referred by members of the tightly knit social service community in the city.

From the street, it doesn't look like a shelter — and volunteers work to make sure it doesn't feel like one inside, either.

It reminds me of being at my parents' house, where it's safe and comfortable and there's that element of being taken care of.- Today House co-ordinator Kat Bergen

Walk in on any given day and shelter co-ordinator Kat Bergen says you'll be hit with the smell of brewing coffee or hot, hearty meals being cooked in the kitchen.

"It reminds me of going home. It reminds me of being at my parents' house, where it's safe and comfortable and there's that element of being taken care of," she said.

In the bright basement where guests sleep, a quilt hangs on one wall and toiletries are left with neatly folded towels and socks on the beds when guests arrive.

A pair of squishy couches sit near a TV and a fireplace, and Bergen says guests often sit there and talk about their shared experiences.

A small library of reading material waits for guests at Today House. (Submitted by Simone Penner)

Bergen is the shelter's only paid employee and volunteers take turns sleeping there whenever guests are in. The shelter gets no funding from any level of government and relies on community donations for its budget of roughly $65,000 a year.

According to research by a rural homelessness expert, when it opened in 2012 Today House was also among Canada's earliest real-world examples of a grassroots shelter strategy that is continuing to grow in communities across the country.

"It was very well organized, it was just that it wasn't government-driven.… That was striking, that the community wasn't getting government supports," said Alina Turner, principal researcher at Turner Strategies and a co-author of a 2014 study funded by the federal government that looked into homelessness in Steinbach and other rural communities across Canada.

"They were coming together to help people regardless."

Years later, Turner says she still sees Today House as a creative measure that other communities can implement, too.

The home-based centres don't generate the same kind of traffic as larger traditional shelters — and don't cost as much, either. In recent years, the model has popped up in youth homes and in small communities in B.C.'s Okanagan, she said.

"It's funny now, because that model now has a name. It really came from the community up. We call them host homes or community homes. Even now, they're seen as an innovative practice."

Hidden homelessness

Understanding and addressing rural homelessness is complicated because of a few factors, Turner said. Natural disasters like floods and forest fires create keenly felt strain and there's less affordable housing stock available.

Rural homelessness has also often been called "invisible" because people with nowhere to go in rural areas may end up "sleeping rough" in their cars or couch-surfing, rather than in more visible, public areas as in large cities. The absolute numbers are also smaller than in cities.

That reality also compounds another complicating element, which is that residents in many rural areas simply believe homelessness doesn't exist in their community.

"Homelessness in Steinbach is not a visible homelessness," said Simone Penner, one of the women who founded Today House six years ago.

"There's still a lot of the couch-surfing and stuff like that. The hidden homelessness is alive in our community."

Guests at Today House are provided with fresh towels and hygiene products, says shelter co-ordinator Kat Bergen. (Submitted by Simone Penner)

As an active volunteer in soup kitchens and social service agencies in the area, Penner said she knew more about poverty and homelessness in Steinbach, and the lack of any emergency shelter to address it.

Just before Christmas in 2011, she read an article in a community paper about a Steinbach couple who were living in a tent that winter. It made her feel like taking action couldn't wait anymore, and she drummed up a group of what she calls "like-minded individuals" by January 2012.

Inspired by a youth home in the area, they came up with Today House's model. They asked for, and received, permission to proceed from the city and found a single-family home to transform into an emergency shelter. Penner said the model allowed founders to open sooner and navigate bureaucracy more quickly.

"We knew that if we went with a walk-up shelter that we still wouldn't be open. We would just go through so much red tape, and the cost would be higher," she said. "We just settled that this [model] was a way we could act now."

They found a house to rent and, after talking to neighbours, the shelter officially opened its doors at the end of October that year. Shortly after that, the group was able to purchase the house with the help of a one-time federal grant.

"It was the natural way to address the problem — let's get it done, keep it simple, and provide the best care we can," Penner said.

'Very, very welcoming'

Bergen said before the centre was created, the only social service that came close in the city of nearly 16,000 was a women's shelter for people leaving abusive relationships.

"Really, outside of that, it was just whatever organization in town came across these people that were either transient or homeless, they just gave whatever they could to help them get back on their feet," she said.

"In the meantime, people were squatting in abandoned buildings, people were sleeping outside, people were camping out in the bush or sleeping in their cars or what have you."

When Kitching was homeless in Winnipeg, he said he saw too much violence and substance abuse to feel comfortable in city shelters. He found it a stressful environment, but he didn't feel that way in Today House.

"It's very, very welcoming," he said.

He was only at Today House for four days before workers there and at Steinbach Community Outreach — a non-profit that works to help those who are homeless, or at risk of being homeless, to meet basic needs — found him a rooming house in the area where he could live.

To Penner, success stories like Kitching's are worth all the hard work.

"I think we can't get hung up too much on the numbers of people that we help every day or each month or year," she said.

"I think we need to focus on the fact that we have helped, period — and that's our main goal."

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