Nova Scotia

Halifax organization steps in to help homeless families with nowhere to go

Housing advocates say family homelessness is a hidden problem that has parents and children split up and sleeping in cars or couch-surfing like Caitlyn Lethbridge and Myles Benn. That's why Adsum for Women and Children has a program aimed at steering Halifax-area families and children away from shelters and into homes.

Adsum's Diverting Families program helps place families in a home instead of a shelter

Caitlin Lethbridge, Myles Benn and daughter Ellie on moving day with help from Adsum for Women and Children. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

For Caitlin Lethbridge and Myles Benn, the hunt for their first apartment began in January 2020 amid Halifax's affordable housing crisis and just before the start of the pandemic.

They searched for 13 months while they couch-surfed at relatives' homes, going back and forth between a pullout sofa in a one-bedroom apartment in Dartmouth to a basement in Upper Sackville.

For a few days, they slept in a tent in the woods — while Lethbridge was in her third trimester of pregnancy — and then it was back to the basement. On Boxing Day, they were on the move again, this time staying with Lethbridge's aunt in Halifax and sleeping on an air mattress.

A daily apartment hunt on Facebook and Kijiji was an exercise in frustration. Responses to their inquiries were terse: Don't message back. It's rented out already.

"It was getting really stressful and was just feeling like it was no hope of finding an apartment that way," Benn, 22, said in an interview last week as the couple sat in a one-bedroom apartment in north-end Dartmouth. 

Most of the couple’s belongings were bagged for the move into their own place. Adsum provided the family with furniture. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

It's an emergency apartment, one of 12 scattered around the municipality that are leased by Adsum for Women and Children, a non-profit charity that shelters and houses 300 people a year. The crisis lodgings are part of a program called Diverting Families that's aimed at steering families away from the trauma of entering a shelter.

A hidden problem

Family homelessness is considered a hidden problem because typically they aren't sleeping on the streets or in shelters. They're families who crash for the night on a friend's couch or whose children spend the night at a relative's home while their parents sleep in a car.

For Lethbridge and Benn, being homeless during a housing crunch was made more challenging by the fact they have criminal records. Lethbridge was convicted in 2015 for possessing and using a credit card for a fraudulent purpose and Benn is awaiting sentencing for charges of theft, robbery and possession of a weapon. The couple said they're working to turn their lives around, but their convictions remain a significant impediment to finding secure housing.

Meghan Hansford, who earned a PhD doing work on mothers and children who have experienced family violence, is Adsum's housing support program manager. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

"If landlords Google some individuals to try and see what the background is on their tenants and things, then that could certainly be a barrier with folks," said Meghan Hansford, Adsum's housing support manager. "We're always open to having conversations with landlords and community partners around working with folks."

Adsum's Diverting Families program costs $575,000 a year, covering expenses such as rent, utilities, furniture and temporary stays in hotel. It also helps families as they move into their own housing by taking care of damage deposits, first month's rent, and other costs.

Bypassing the shelter system

There are currently 438 people who are homeless in the Halifax region — an improvement from approximately 500 people just a few months ago, said Hansford. She attributes that drop to rapid housing initiatives, rental subsidies for people who receive income assistance, and a vacancy rate of 1.9 per cent, up from one per cent last year.

Among those statistics, there are 39 families without a place to live.

Adsum has supported families with as many as seven children, and one family was homeless for five years, Hansford said. In the last year, the organization has helped 68 families, including 151 children, bypass the shelter system into housing.

George says his emergency housing arrangement with Adsum House and YWCA is working so far. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

The emergency apartment for Lethbridge and Benn came through two months ago when Lethbridge heard about Adsum.

Sleeping in a tent

The couple's relationship had become strained after a nomadic year that grew even more complicated when Lethbridge, 26, became pregnant. Homelessness intensified her anxiety and depression, she said.

"Between the noise and not having your own space and no privacy, people arguing and whatnot, it makes it really difficult to try and raise the baby and take care of your family," she said.

Late last summer, when her belly was swollen, her pregnancy nearing full term, they were stuck without even a couch to crash on. For several days, they endured the sun, heat, and rain — under a tent pitched at Soldier Lake in Fall River.

"That was pretty bad, too. It wasn't too much fun," said Benn.

Lethbridge says she's now able to think about going back to school while raising her daughter. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Lethbridge said the stress of camping contributed to morning sickness in her third trimester that was so intense she needed to be hospitalized for two days. 

"Dealing with the morning sickness and just jumping, like having to move our stuff from one place to the next place, and I'm pregnant, so it makes it harder," said Lethbridge, who became emotional thinking back to that time.

Their baby, Ellie, was born in October.

Now six months old, Ellie is a happy, healthy child who makes noises that sound like her mom's words. She follows her dad's eyes and smiles. And she rolls around and sits up — in her own bedroom, decorated with pink butterfly garland.

A place to call home

The family is finally in their first home. Last week, they moved into a two-bedroom apartment down the hall from Adsum's emergency unit.

"I love it. I think it's amazing," said Lethbridge.

Without references, jobs or a rental history, the couple likely would've been turned away if not housed first on an emergency basis, said landlord Karim George.

George's small property company, InTouch Living, has four emergency units leased to Adsum and the YWCA. The arrangement allows him to give back to Dartmouth, the community that's accepted him as an immigrant entrepreneur.

The family during one of their move-in days. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

After the family's emergency stay, George said he was pleased to sign a lease with them.

"It's a win, win, win," he said. "Everybody is winning. So I'm actually happy that this worked out."

As they settle into their new home, the couple is looking to the future instead of dwelling on the past.

'There's some hope'

Lethbridge has been studying for her GED, and hopes for a career as a doula or in a hospital helping mothers deliver babies. She's also hoping housing stability creates an opportunity for her two older daughters, who are being raised by relatives, to meet their baby sister.

"I think it should change our lives for the better," she said.

Benn said becoming a father has "really made me do a whole ... life change, that's for sure."

A place to call home is another step forward.

"There's some hope, there's a relief," he said. "I'm just really blessed that Adsum House helped us out and got us through all of this."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.

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