Metro Morning

Stretching money and hope as a homeless mother of 4 in Newmarket

Fernanda Arias, a mother of four, left an abusive relationship a month ago and returned to the Blue Door Shelter in Newmarket for the second time in three years.

'You go to sleep with a heavy weight on your shoulders,' says mother of search for affordable housing

The school bus approaches the driveway of Blue Door Shelter in Newmarket. (CBC)

In Toronto's inner suburbs, low-income families are concentrated in high-rise towers along major avenues, a visible presence in the city.

But in Newmarket, an hour's commute from Toronto, poverty is harder to see. It is spread out in sprawling subdivisions, where finding an affordable apartment is almost as hard as it is downtown.

Fernanda Arias left an abusive relationship a month ago. So she's returned to the Blue Door Shelter in Newmarket for the second time in three years. She is there with her four children, trying to get back on her feet.

"It's not easy looking for a place. People look at credit and how many children you have, and then they look at you like, 'Okay, you're single, you have this many kids, I don't think so,'" she said.

Fuelled by hope

When Highway 404 expanded, between Toronto and Newmarket, housing prices expanded with it. The average house in this community north of Toronto sells for more than $600,000, echoing Toronto's soaring real estate. Arias fears that renting an apartment big enough for a family of five may be a dream.

"It costs $1,400 to $1,500, easy, for a three-bedroom. Easy," she said.

So Arias searches online daily.

"You kind of go to sleep with a heavy weight on your shoulders, because you don't really know. All you can hope is, maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow, someone will say yes, someone will give me that chance. That's literally how I think. God will send somebody in and say, 'Okay you know what, I'll rent it to you,'" she said.  

"You just have to hope for that. And I'm not the only one: a lot of the mothers I speak to here, they just work on hope."

Radha Bhardwaj, Blue Door's executive director, said staff are working hard with the mother of four. Even after Arias finds a place, Radha says shelter staff will stay in touch to make sure Arias stays afloat.

"For three months, six months, almost up to a year after they leave the shelter, we'll follow up," she said. Blue Door will drop off donations of food or grocery cards as well as social services.

Life at the suburban shelter

Arias is adapting to life back at the shelter. 

The school bus drops her children at the bottom of the shelter driveway on a busy four-lane highway below. When the bus stops, six kids will get off.

That number is down from more than a dozen kids a week ago — part of living in a shelter is that people move on.

Arias is joined by several other parents from the shelter at the bottom of the driveway to wait for the school bus.

One of them moved here three months ago from Saskatoon. A father who, like Arias, also has four children. 

Sulaimon Shah came to Canada from Afghanistan as a skilled worker, a mechanic. But he wasn't prepared for his first winter in Saskatoon. Working outdoors, he froze his hands badly and decided to move to Ontario to try his luck and let his hands heal:

Earlier immigration patterns saw newcomers arrive in Toronto's downtown core, and then migrate to the outer suburbs.

Today, the pattern is reversed: immigrants settle in the suburbs while downtown Toronto might as well be another country.

But on this cold afternoon in Newmarket, cars roaring past, there is something reassuring about this shared routine. The parents wait for a school bus to arrive, just like anywhere else in Ontario.

By the following week, something else arrives: good news.

Arias found a three-bedroom apartment in the main floor of a small bungalow. As she expected, it costs $1,400 per month, leaving about $1,200 to cover everything else.

Shah and his wife, Kalima, who are now friends of Arias and her family, will also leave this weekend. All of them relieved to share their good fortune with each other.


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About the Author

Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"

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