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Why is the YWCA closing, and what happens to the women in transition who live there?

“When the RCMP took me away that day, they said ‘Don’t come back here, Mrs. King. If you come back here, next time we see you, you’ll be in a body bag.’” And Donna King didn’t go back to her abusive husband that day, or any other. Instead, she went first to emergency shelter Bryony House, and from there to the YWCA. “They care about me,” she says, over and over. “My family don’t care about me, but they do. They’re my family.”

And they have been for 22 years and five months—the amount of time King has lived at the YWCA on Barrington Street. King is one of 11 women who consider the YWCA her family. King and her neighbours will soon be on the streets again, though.

Citing a need to deal with extreme financial pressure, the YWCA, which provides housing and other services for women in Halifax who need shelter and help, has sold its landmark downtown property. The beautiful old building is probably better known in Halifax for its daycare, its swimming pool, its gym and its art gallery, but for around 30 years, it has also been home to up to 16 women in transition at any given time. It’ll likely become condominiums, a far cry from the affordable, supported housing it now provides. And when those doors close for the last time on November 1, where will Donna King go? “That’s what I’d like to know,” she says. “That’s what I’d like to ask the minister.”

The minister is David Morse, minister of community services in John Hamm’s government. His department has given the YWCA tens of thousands of dollars over the past year in addition to the Y’s usual funding from the province, but none of it has been enough to stop the organization’s slide—a slide exacerbated by years of government cuts. In recent years, the cost of delivering the service has exceeded the operating money provided by the government for it by $83,000 a year. Crosby says it’s difficult to know how far back this problem stretches; a recent audit covered 2003, 2004 and 2005, and the shortfall was an issue each year.

That shortfall shouldn’t be news to Morse, says Tanis Crosby, executive director of the YWCA. After all, that audit was carried out by provincial auditors, six of them, appointed in fall 2004 by the department of community services to ascertain that what the YWCA was reporting about their finances was true. Crosby says the auditors found the deficit was actually $1,000 more than the Y thought it was. The province, Crosby says, has been kept abreast of the solution the board of directors was moving inexorably toward—to sell the building, use the proceeds to pay down that crushing debt so that they can continue to serve their clients off site.

How exactly does a respected, national organization that’s been around for more than 100 years find itself in such straits? That $83,000 deficit per year is certainly a factor. To make up the shortfall, the Y has always fundraised. The Y has 16 private rooms. In addition to the women in transition who live there, the Y offered temporary housing to students and tourists to subsidize operations. But in recent years, overhead was increasing along with the price of oil, and occupancy rates were on the rise, and the more women in transition the Y helped, the fewer rooms there were available to rent to customers.

“So, the more women we were serving, the less able we were to raise funds to advance our mission, to help them.” Crosby says the Y sought help, and the province answered the call—with the auditors, and with one-time funding of $100,000. And the province also committed last year to work with the Y toward a sustainable funding arrangement. Morse visited the Y last in August 2004, and Crosby says at that time, he was told the sale of the building and the loss of those beds were options on the table.

“We’ve experienced a dramatic increase in our operating costs, for things like oil, and we see that that’s going to get worse,” Crosby says. “Non-profits all across the country, not just the YWCA, are seeing a decline in their core operating support. So you have a climate where there are increased operating costs, less core operating dollars for non-profits, and a need, an increasing need.” Faced with those pressures, Crosby says, she and the board of directors had to question the wisdom of continuing to own a drafty, old, 34,000 square foot building in downtown Halifax. And they had to think long term.

“We did a lot of soul searching and identified that it’s not really a good match with what we’re currently doing and what we need for the next 50, 75 years.” So last fall, they issued a call for proposals for redevelopment, lease or sale of the building. “And in the end,” Crosby says, “sale was the best option.”

The proceeds from that sale will get the YW out of the hole. They’ll invest the remaining assets, after building demolition costs, to offset operating costs in the future. (Morse’s department has said that the $37,200 annual grant the Y receives will no longer be paid once the sale of the building goes through.) They’ll relocate their daycare service, employment and youth programs, and administrative office to a much smaller space. The other services they provide, they’re able to do off site—to serve people where they are, rather than using a giant building downtown as their headquarters. But they still, like most other non-profits in the business of providing a social safety net, need provincial support.

“Of course we’re willing to step up with fundraising and in kind resources and the force of the organization,” says Crosby, “but we need some kind of commitment for ongoing support that’s realistic, because it’s irresponsible for us to enter into arrangements where people are relying on us for their home, where we can’t guarantee it’ll be around 10 years from now. So it’s not responsible for us to do something unless we know it’s sustainable, unless we know we can do it well. So status quo is just not an option.”

But in the end, Crosby says, even the status quo couldn’t be counted on. “They told us no more money; that was at the end of June. We were reeling, so we thought, OK, we need to identify something we can do with the money we’re already getting.” Which is when they decided to try a scattered supported housing approach. The YWCA in St. Catharines, Ontario, is piloting such a program, and Crosby and the board thought it could work here.

And here’s how: the Y would make arrangements with private landlords to agree to take on these high-risk tenants. Meantime, the Y supplies its usual support services—including trusteeship, a program that helps individuals manage their money, so they don’t find themselves without rent on the first of the month. “It works for everybody,” Crosby says. “Tenants get a place to stay, and landlords get their rent.”

But Crosby points out that supported housing can be as expensive to run as shelters are. The difference, she says, is that supported housing offers a better cost-benefit. “There’s a study in BC that looked at the cost-benefit of supported housing. They found that housed individuals who were formerly homeless cost the government 33 percent less in services. You’re saving in health; you’re saving in justice. And I know it’s difficult for one department to want to do things that might cost them money but save their government money as a whole, or be beneficial to society as a whole, but that’s what it’s about.”

But without the department of community service’s commitment to sustainable funding, even the supported scattered housing is a non-starter.

And that’s bad news for everybody. Because the problem of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in this city is getting worse.

In Halifax at any given moment, according to the 2005 report Portraits of Homelessness, 25,180 households need low-income housing. Their average income is $18,495, and they spend around 46 percent of that on housing. Thirty-two percent of the 266 homeless people surveyed cite family violence, conflict or breakdown as the reason for their homelessness. Another 26 percent say substance abuse is at the root of their homelessness, while 14 percent blame mental illness. Some respondents cite all three. Put another way, at any given moment, 25,180 households are a paycheque—or a beating—away from being on the street.

Emergency shelters are the first line of defence. But if people are to break out of the cycle of homelessness—the same study says a homeless woman in Halifax tends to stay that way for six months to a year—they need longer-term support. In the social work lingo, these people are “in transition.” That transition can last a while. As in Donna King’s case. And it requires more than simple bricks and mortar to help it along.

And this is where the disconnect—or one of them, at least—happens. Governments often think in terms of “beds”—how many actual beds are there in the system, be they in emergency shelters like Adsum House (16 beds), Barry House (12 beds) or in longer-term supported shelter like the YWCA (16 beds) or Alice Housing (17 units housing around 20 women and 21 children these days). But ask the people who actually work on the front lines with these women in transition, and they’ll tell you bricks and mortar—beds—are the least of their problems.

“The health of a community is not measured in how many hospital beds,” says Crosby, “and housing is not about how many beds. It’s about helping people stay housed. You don’t measure the success of a shelter system by how many beds you have, you measure it by how many people you’ve helped keep from being homeless, and for how many you’ve helped alleviate the problem.”

The supported, “transitional” or longer-term housing places like the YWCA provide differ from emergency shelters in a few key ways. Emergency shelter beds tend to be set up in dormitory-type rooms, with five or more women per. Untenable for long-term living. At emergency shelters like Adsum House and Barry House, the average stay lasts 12 days. After that, the woman moves on to transitional housing—or back to the streets, or the abusive situation she left in the first place.

Transitional housing usually offers something more than a roof overhead. For one thing, residents have their own room, and in some cases, their own apartment. And there are the services that go with helping someone stay housed. Maybe it’s helping them find a job. Maybe it’s talking to their employer if they do have a job and are going through tough times. Often it’s helping them navigate the byzantine hallways of social services.

The YWCA is hoping to continue offering these services to its clients, off-site. They may no longer be able to provide the beds, but they’re still willing to provide the support.

Crosby is frustrated not only by the province’s response—or lack thereof—to the YWCA’s situation, she’s frustrated by the situation itself.

“It’s very difficult when organizations are faced with making decisions that are antithetical to what they want to achieve,” she says. “But when financial reality means it’s not feasible, it’s not responsible to keep providing a program that’s going to hit a wall. We have to make our programs sustainable; if they’re not, they don’t benefit anybody, it creates more problems.” She pauses for a moment, clearly pained by the decisions she’s had to make. “You want to do more for the people you’re serving. Your first inclination is always to do more, and at some point, the camel’s back is going to break. And we’ve reached that point already.”

And so where is the department of community services in all of this? David Morse’s office sent a letter to Andrea Doncaster, president of the board of the YWCA, about the situation and what role the province is willing to play in helping keep the Y afloat. It’s a sternly worded missive, one that indicates mismanagement, laziness or outright stupidity on the part of the YWCA.

In it, David Morse chastises the YWCA for not keeping his department in the loop. “(T)he Department has made numerous requests since October 2004 with respect to the long-term plan of the YWCA Barrington Street property. Unfortunately, this information was not provided to us until the meeting of August 18, 2005.”

Crosby says that at a meeting in August 2004, and over the course of the ensuing year, her organization did keep the department up to date on what was happening.

“They’d been asking since last fall ‘What are you going to do?’ We didn’t know last November we were going to sell the building. We provided them with information on the four expressions of interest we received. We would have liked to receive a full development proposal, we didn’t get that. So we went forward. We got a development proposal. Within that there were various options for us. We provided the government with those options. We provided them with a motion from the board that we were pursuing a development agreement, I think that was in April. They knew then that the housing program needed to be relocated. In fact, in June, they provided me with an option for a place to relocate. It’s true we didn’t tell them till the 18th that we had sold the building—we didn’t sell it till the 17th. Up till then we provided them with information about the decision, and within that there were many decisions. It was not a decision we took lightly or made quickly.”

The letter also indicates the department is ready to help the women who will be displaced when the building sale is complete on November 1, and the funding for the YWCA’s housing program has not come through.

“Through this transition phase while your current housing programs are coming to an end, I want to assure you that Community Services will be actively working with any person who may need alternative accommodations as a result of your closure.”

In an interview, Morse was less forthcoming about how his department was “actively working” with the women at the Y.

With a member of his staff sitting in on speakerphone, he said, “Without identifying the women in question, I would suggest that a lot of them are employment support or income assistance clients, and so would have a caseworker. And it’s really the caseworker’s responsibility to assist those clients in managing their day-to-day needs. The caseworker in many instances is the key person in a client’s life. They go to them for assistance and guidance and advice. That role will become even more prominent if the YWCA is making changes to their own program.”

Terry Green, the attending staffer, added, “They are trained social workers, experts in working with these clients. They can help the clients identify their needs, and match them with services.”

Later, the letter reasserts that “We continue to explore alternatives to ensure that all your YWCA residents will have alternative arrangements in place by November 1, 2005.”

When pressed for information about which alternatives, exactly, the department is exploring, Morse again offered: “That would be something that the client would work on, the caseworkers will assist them. If you’re asking us whether the caseworker is involved in housing per se, that’s not the case, but they’re involved in helping clients obtain shelter. There are lots of various places where you can find accommodation in the city; the YWCA has been one of them, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only one.”

One of those “lots of various places” is Alice Housing (the others for women are Adsum Centre, 16 beds, and Bryony House, 24 beds). Alice Housing comprises a series of affordable apartments (a four-bedroom duplex goes for $600 a month), as well as a social worker support system for the women and children who live there. These days, there are 20 women and 21 children living at Alice Housing, and two apartments are being renovated. The shelter, which provides alarmed apartments to help protect residents from their often-abusive partners, is effectively full. In fact, the Portrait 2005 study notes that on the night the study took place, Alice Housing had to turn away four women.

Joanne Bernard is the executive director of Alice Housing. Bernard, who created Marguerite House, the only residential shelter in Nova Scotia for women recovering from addiction, has been at Alice Housing since February, but she’s already very familiar with the challenges her clients face.

“If these women could live on their own, they would, they wouldn’t be at the Y,” she says. “Social assistance would get them an apartment, and they’d make their own connections in the community. But they just don’t have the energy.” Bernard herself was a single mom on welfare before and while she went to school to earn her masters in political science. She knows the road the women she serves are walking. “You’re dealing with anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen community professionals, and that’s overwhelming. The government had plenty of time to come through with housing money for the Y. It kills me when I hear the government say there are beds out there. Where are they? Transitional beds are not safe supported housing.

“You can’t just have bricks and mortar,” she says, echoing Crosby’s refrain. “That’s the problem with all these government programs.” When she developed the Marguerite Centre, she says, “I got $750,000 from the federal government to start it up, but no sustaining funding.” To keep Alice Housing going, she receives $45,000 a year from the province. The funding hasn’t changed in 10 years, she says, but the need has certainly increased.

Tanis Crosby says once the Y closes its doors, there will be a grand total of one private room for women in Halifax. “So if you’re a homeless woman in Halifax, you share accommodations, and that’s appropriate, perhaps, for a short term. Emergency shelter is appropriate for some, but not for all, and it’s also incredibly expensive.” Adsum House receives around $90 per day, per resident from the government, for instance. The Y receives, if women stay on a monthly basis, $17.83 per night, or $45 per night if they stay on a weekly basis. She believes the province should be asking itself, “‘What are the continuum of supports and services that are needed to truly alleviate and prevent homelessness?’ There are gaps now, and those gaps will be exacerbated on November 1. It needs urgent, comprehensive attention. No more band-aid solutions.”

And the thing is, these organizations are a lot like the women they serve. They need ongoing support to continue doing their work. And they are at the mercy of the federal and provincial governments, who control the purse strings. If the minister doesn’t understand what’s involved in the work these organizations do, or if the political will just isn’t present, or if it’s simply better optics to spend $750,000 on a start-up, but terribly unsexy to offer ongoing funding, then these programs and organizations are vulnerable and at risk, ultimately, of disappearing.

And that’s just not tenable. Not for the women who use them, and not for society at large.

“For the women who are in Bryony House or are homeless anywhere, 53 percent are there because of family violence,” says Joanne Bernard. “If there weren’t places like Alice Housing or the Y, they would be in unsafe housing conditions, they’d be open to abuse, vulnerable to addiction or mental health problems, or they’d be on the streets, take your pick. Or they would stay in an abusive situation because that’s the choice, ‘Do I become homeless, or stay and get the crap kicked out of me?’ If you have kids, you’re gonna stay because you don’t want your kids to be homeless.”

And what about those kids, who grow up in violent homes, or who become homeless when their mothers can’t take it anymore?

“Those kids are in school, maybe they’re going through behaviour problems, maybe bullying other kids, those kids will grow up as abusers or will be abused,” says Bernard. “The kids who lived at Bryony House in the ’80s are now back there as abused women. You’d have to live in a bubble to think it doesn’t affect everybody.”

Paul O’Hara agrees. He’s a social worker based at the North End Community Health Clinic. In the 20 years he’s worked there, he’s seen a cross- section of the issues people who are homeless, or at risk for homelessness, grapple with: addictions, abuse, mental health issues, being caught in a cycle of poverty. “We want a society where we personally and our brothers and sisters and wives and husbands and children and neighbours are safe,” he says. “When you create a society where a percentage of the population perceives itself not to be valued, they hurt each other and themselves, but they’re gonna strike out, hurt your brothers, your sisters, your children. Then it’s how you spend money: If you do it in a thoughtful, strategic way, a way that’s based in getting the best bang for your buck with social programs, it alleviates the problem. If not, then the writing’s on the wall; you don’t look after kids when they’re young, with quality childcare, good food, keep them in school, you’re going to spend money in the criminal justice system—jails, mental health facilities. It’s not news, it’s fact, it’s like the ozone layer. Why don’t we do something about it? Why didn’t the US do something about the levee system in New Orleans? Because it was going to affect poor people first, and they’re not a priority.”

O’Hara believes the government should worry about bricks and mortar—that it should be in the business of building and running social housing. Instead, he says, politicians in this province focus on rent subsidies, which give existing landlords who house low-income people a bit of a boost. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” O’Hara says, “but it shouldn’t be the focus. You’re not going to get a big return on rent supplements. At end of day, the money’s gone and landlords can raise rents. If you build social housing units, then it’s owned by taxpayers; if you don’t want it for social housing anymore, you can sell it and put money back into debt or deficit or another social program. If you just pass money to privates, they’re not capable, they’ve proven, of housing people adequately. They have to generate a profit in the housing market, and the people I see every day just don’t have the market rent.”

In the long run, O’Hara says, a scheme like this one would save the province money: Some of what it pays out in welfare would come right back to it, as the owner of the building. The rest would go into the economy. “Give the people a little base,” he says. “Let them get ahead. You’re going to get it back, they’re going to spend it.”

He believes the government can’t think, or won’t think, that far into the future. “It’s short sighted, but politicians operate in four-year spans. They’re more interested in personal development, or ensuring they get re-elected, as opposed to what the common good is. That’s more pronounced now than it’s been in the last 20 years.” By contrast, the YWCA looked 50 to 75 years down the road when making the decision to sell its property on Barrington Street. And everyone who works in the affordable or supported housing sector says the same thing: They need to know programs will be sustainable before they can rightly offer them to people in need. They can’t start, and then say, “Whoops, sorry, we ran out of money, looks like you’re on the street again.”

Because that’s just what’s happening at the YWCA right now. Unless the ongoing conversation between the organization and the department of community services bears some fruit, that is. And Tanis Crosby is hopeful that it will, that the province will step forward with some support that would ensure the YWCA can continue to serve its clients the way it has for 30 years. The building has been sold; that can’t be undone. And Crosby believes it was the right decision for the Y. It would have cost tens of thousands to renovate, and the price of oil to heat the 34,000 square foot space would eat too far into the budget to be tenable. But even without a building, she believes her organization will be able to continue to help the women who rely on it—if David Morse will agree to offer sustainable funding.

“Bottom line, we’re concerned about diminished services for women,” says Crosby. “As Donna pointed out, ‘I don’t need to be placed at a shelter, I need a home.’”

Donna King breaks in. “I know beyond a shadow of doubt, the Y saved my life. This is not just a place to stay, this is home to me. And the staff is always there to let me know they care. And same for other women over the years, they were glad to come here and have a chance to heal. The reason I’ve stayed here for 22 years and five months is because I consider it home. I felt safe for the first time in my life. The four months I spent at a shelter for battered women, the stories were just appalling. I think the government says too bad so sad; they say they care for us, but it’s just talk.”

And as for King, where will she go on November 1? “Well, Donna wants to know,” says Crosby, as Donna nods, “and she’s requested a meeting with the minister, and they’ve suggested she talk to caseworkers about that.”

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