Nova Scotia

Thesis project shares stories of older women in insecure housing

A Halifax master's student is highlighting the experiences of older women in the municipality who struggle to find safe, secure and affordable places to live.

'One woman actually said ... my expiry date has come and gone,' says researcher

Kelly O'Neil recently received MSVU's award for best thesis for her work with older woman in unstable housing. (Emma Smith/CBC)

A Halifax master's student is highlighting the experiences of older women in the municipality who struggle to find safe, secure and affordable places to live.

Kelly O'Neil spent time with 11 women between the ages of 54 and 74 for her thesis for Mount Saint Vincent University's degree in family studies and gerontology. She wanted to hear first-hand what it's like to deal with unstable housing situations.

But instead of presenting her sober findings in a traditional thesis format, she also created a hand-drawn booklet that she hopes inspires decision-makers to actually fix the problem.

All of the women she spoke with live on a limited income. Some had been homeless in the past, escaped violent relationships or survived childhood abuse. 

"You hear about this idea of invisibility," O'Neil told CBC's Information Morning. "This sort of recurring theme of feeling disconnected.… One woman actually said, you know, my expiry date has come and gone."

O'Neil interviewed 11 women between the ages of 54 and 74 who live in Halifax Regional Municipality. (Kelly O'Neil/Mount Saint Vincent University )

O'Neil said some of the women told her that they don't feel safe where they live. 

"So not feeling safe in the neighbourhood, having ongoing conflict with the neighbours, feeling threatened or challenged by landlords, or made uncomfortable by landlords or property owners," O'Neil said. 

Still, she was surprised that so many found a way to make a bad living situation better. 

"It shows the resourcefulness of women in dealing with really less than ideal — far less than ideal — circumstances, but also really draws attention to why should they have to be resourceful?" said O'Neil.

O'Neil's work is especially needed now that Halifax is in the middle of an affordability crisis, said Claudia Jahn, director of community housing development with the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia. 

She also advised O'Neil on her thesis.

The rental vacancy rate in Halifax is at a record low 1.6 per cent, and the provincial NDP has called for action now that 20 per cent of households spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent and utilities.

She said finding adequate housing isn't just a problem for older women.

For those with children, it can be especially hard to find an affordable place to live, she said. 

The stigma is such a problem that the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission issued a warning this summer to landlords who refused to rent to families with children.

"Women with children are less mobile than men are because they are bound by a school district and don't want to move their children. So they are always tied to that community," she said. 

Some women might stay in a dangerous housing situation for the sake of their children, Jahn added.

O'Neil said she was surprised that nearly all of the women believed their living situations weren't that bad. (Kelly O'Neil/Mount Saint Vincent University)

"They don't want to uproot the children out of their schools, circle of friends, relatives. So making that step into a shelter is really the last, last resort."

Jahn has been working on housing affordability across the province since 2003, and said things have only gotten worse as public housing deteriorates and rental prices soar.

All the while new affordable buildings aren't being put up fast enough, she said.  

"Tweaking the system just a little bit here and there isn't really doing any justice for the severity of the issue," Jahn said. 

O'Neil is distributing her thesis in the hopes that it will make people think differently about older women, whose stories often go unheard. (Kelly O'Neil/Mount Saint Vincent University)

Both O'Neil and Jahn say for too long people tasked with creating more, and better, affordable housing don't engage with the people who actually need it. 

That's the idea behind Home for Good, a joint project by Alice House, the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Marguerite Centre and YWCA Halifax. The three-year initiative looks at the barriers women face once they leave supportive housing programs.

In 2017, the groups interviewed 22 women between the ages of 19 and 60.

What they found, said project manager Charlene Gagnon, is that the province needs an approach to housing that recognizes the needs of women as different from the needs of men.

"The programs that don't apply that gender lens, they really don't take into account things like women's economic security, being the leaders of single-income households with children and histories of trauma," said Gagnon, who travelled to Edmonton earlier this month to share the groups' work at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

The project will officially wrap up in January 2020, but Gagnon said the work is really just beginning.

The non-profits are now developing next steps, like credit counselling programs for women and online training for landlords to better understand what women renters face. 

Like O'Neil, the researchers used animation to share the participants' stories. 

"These are women who've worked really hard to go through programs," Gagnon said. "They're told in their programming to be proud of where they come from and be proud of who they are, and then when they go tell their stories to landlords that actually becomes a barrier to them."

"That stigma is really alive and well in the province, and it's traumatizing in itself." 

O'Neil's creative approach to her research earned her the best thesis of the year at her university.

But for her, the real victory will be seeing her work translate into action. 

"I hope this would at the very least just generate an awareness that these women exist and are among us and have been huge parts of community life that maybe we don't value enough," she said.


With files from CBC's Information Morning


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