Out in the Open

'Do you realize you're homeless?' How Canadians are grappling with hidden homelessness

A 2016 study released by Statistics Canada reported that nearly one in 10 Canadians experience hidden homelessness at some point in their lives.

Nearly one in 10 Canadians experience hidden homelessness at some point in their lives, StatsCan says

Shirley Berry says that experiencing homelessness has allowed her to be less judgemental of people, regardless of their situation. (Submitted by Shirley Berry)
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Shirley Berry was staying on a sofa bed, rolled out on the kitchen floor of her son's bachelor apartment when she came to a sudden revelation.

"Do you realize you're homeless?" asked her son.

Until that point, the notion had never crossed her mind. For her, homelessness looked much different than temporarily crashing at her son's place.

"The image I had of homelessness was people who were out on the street, mostly with addictions problems, or mental health issues," Berry told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay. "I didn't see myself in those categories at all."

She didn't know it at the time, but Berry's experience has a name: hidden homelessness.

The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness defined hidden homelessness as having temporary, insecure accommodation that can include couch surfing, staying with family and friends or sleeping in cars.

People living with hidden homelessness are invisible to the service system.- William O'Grady

A 2016 study released by Statistics Canada reported that nearly one in 10 Canadians experience hidden homelessness at some point in their lives.

"As a society, hidden homelessness is not considered to be homelessness," William O'Grady, a sociology professor at the University of Guelph, told Out in the Open.

"Images of homelessness, which appear in the Canadian mass media, for example, usually depict 'the homeless' as people living on the streets in large cities like Toronto and Vancouver."

He added that people living with hidden homelessness may not consider themselves to be homeless, and therefore don't seek support that may be available — essentially making them "invisible to the service system."

'I couldn't cope'

Grace Richards has been homeless for the last five years. One-third of people living in Conklin, Alta. are without adequate or stable housing. (Photo by Sky Seidel )

Before Berry lost her home, her husband was a successful research scientist, while she taught computer software at a college. They lived comfortably in a luxurious Toronto condo.

Things drastically changed when her husband lost a considerable amount of money in the stock market. At the same time, Berry wasn't being prudent in her spending. Their poor financial decisions, along with compounding debt, eventually led to bankruptcy.

I definitely thought that anyone that was homeless was living the life they deserved because of the choices they made.- Shirley Berry

Berry and her husband separated. She spent a month on the sofa bed in her son's apartment before moving into a women's shelter, which was a stark contrast from her previous life.

"Basically they were being warehoused there, especially the women with mental health issues. They just received almost no care at all," Berry said of the living conditions.

Thanks to a combination of government supports she received in her mid-60s, Berry could once again afford an apartment of her own.

As someone who grew up with class consciousness, homeless people used to make her feel uncomfortable.

"I definitely thought that anyone that was homeless was living the life they deserved because of the choices they made," Berry said.

Upon reflection, she said her experience has changed her for the better.

"It's helped me to be more understanding, kinder and less judgemental of people, whatever their situation."

Rural homelessness

Grace Richards lives what she describes as a "shack" in Conklin, Alta. (Photo by Sky Seidel )

Grace Richards has a roof over her head, but still considers herself homeless.

She lives in Conklin, Alta., a Métis community of roughly 300 residents, located 150 kilometres south of Fort McMurray.

For the past five years she's been living in a small trailer, squatting on a family member's land.

Grace Richards has limited heat, and gets electricity from her neighbour using an extension cord. (Photo by Sky Seidel )

"It is very hard living. I have lived in Fort McMurray. I was a homeowner over there. I took for granted the use of running water, electricity, and heat on a daily basis," she recalled.

In April 2018, the Conklin Resource Development Advisory Committee issued a report declaring a housing crisis in the small hamlet. It estimated that about one third of the people in Conklin live in inadequate or unstable housing.

As an Indigenous woman with deep roots in Conklin, home means much more to Richards than simply having a roof over her head.

"I have had ties to this community all my life. My parents were born in this community. This is my home. Why does a person have to leave their home in order to find a better quality of life?" she said.

'Is this really homelessness?'

As a teenager, Share Ryan found herself homeless on the streets of Ottawa with only a backpack full of textbooks in tow.

"At first, it was really difficult realizing, 'Oh, I'm eating out of a garbage can.' But then you get to a point [where] it's fine, I'm so hungry, I'm going to eat anything at this point," she remembered.

Share Ryan completed high school with honours while homeless in Ottawa. (Submitted by Share Ryan)

Ryan's parents immigrated to Canada following the Sri Lankan civil war. She said her childhood was idyllic, but as she grew older, her mother and father became extremely protective of her.

She was forbidden from reading novels, going on field trips, and taking certain school courses. When Ryan rebelled, she said her father became physically abusive.

Weeks before her 18th birthday, Ryan ran away from home.

Despite living on the street, she was determined to build a life for herself. For months, in between sleeping on park benches and in shelters, Ryan remained a thriving student, eventually graduating from high school with honours.

When Share Ryan became a teenager, her parents tried to forbid her from going anywhere, except to school. (Submitted by Share Ryan)

Securing a job at McDonald's allowed her to eventually afford community housing. Not long after that, she was accepted into the biochemistry program at McMaster University, where she had her own dorm room. She graduated in 2010.

"It was an exhausting, but very great moment," she said about her graduation.

She's now married and owns a house in Toronto with her husband.

    •  OUT IN THE OPEN:  After Escape

Looking back, Ryan said she didn't have the words to describe her situation for a long time.

"There is a huge community that is vulnerable ... you're not sure how to answer the questions, 'How did you get homeless? How did you get out of homeless(ness)? Is this really homelessness?'" she said.

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