Losing stable access to secure, affordable housing is a danger 22-year-old Payton Byrne knows first-hand.
“It doesn’t matter who you are. The first time I was homeless I was 16 years old,” she told Global News Monday.
Byrne explained how, as a teenager living in a household struck by addiction, her family home became unsafe and she spent the next weeks in and out of the homes of several friends — some of whom were dealing with unsafe living environments themselves.
“I don’t know a family who isn’t affected by addiction, my family included. I’m just lucky that alcohol isn’t as dangerous as other drugs. But I was homeless as a privileged, white woman. Houselessness can really happen anywhere.”
The urgent, unpredictable nature of housing insecurity, along with comments made by Social Services Minister Lori Carr last week, are why she and several other advocates spent last weekend putting up posters encouraging all in need of shelter to contact Carr directly.
“I got about 10 hours of sleep Friday to Monday, but it was worth it. She should check her voicemail now.”
The campaign was sparked by a legislature debate around government housing that began last week.
On Monday the 14, Social Services Critic Meara Conway, along with guests from real estate developer Avana, voiced criticism of the government’s affordable housing offering.
Criticizing the province’s decision not to fund a recent affordable housing project built by Avana, they argued that the government is falling short on efforts to supply enough affordable housing to the community, and suggested vacancy rates within Saskatchewan Housing Corporation rental housing are a result of aging units and buildings located close to victims’ abusers.
Then, the next day, Saskatchewan NDP Deputy Leader Nicole Sarauer again brought up the issue, pointing out that the Regina YWCA turns away around 3,000 women and children from its shelters per year.
Carr responded, in part, by suggesting anyone Sarauer was in contact with who was expressing difficulty finding shelter should contact her office.
“Please, bring that to my attention. Bring that to my office and we will ensure that that person is taken care of,” Carr said.
The issue arose again this week during question period on budget day, when Carr called affordable housing a “priority”, and said the province has 520 “affordable rental units”, as well as 321 rental units and 2363 “attainable housing units” completed by for-profit companies, adding that she congratulates Avana but that “we cannot fund them all”.
“Anyone who presents themselves to social services in need of a safe place to sleep gets one,” she added.
“They said they were aware of people who weren’t being housed and I ask them to please provide those names. I was serious when I said that. I extend that invitation today. If they know of someone, let me know.”
Byrne, meanwhile, says she and her peers are planning to do just that.
While the details are not yet set in stone, she said she and other advocates for housing security and harm reduction are planning a march to Carr’s legislative building office to further express dissatisfaction with the province’s work on social services and the overdose crisis.
She said the group is planning to bring the names of those who have been turned away from shelters with them.
She also said the rates paid out by the Saskatchewan Income Support program aren’t enough to meet the current cost of living, even with the rate increases announced in Saskatchewan’s budget Wednesday.
“These are not even close to livable wages. Even with that extra $50, they can’t even pay rent. I’ve lived in some pretty s—-y rentals and they’ve cost double what they’re getting right now,” she said.
“You can bet that I’ll be there and, honestly, a lot of people should be.”
The Ministry of Social Services added the following statement when asked for a response to the poster campaign:
“The Ministry of Social Services and our community partners are here and ready to help anyone who requires shelter. The best and fastest approach is to come in-person to one of our Service Centres across the province to connect with an emergency worker. Here in Regina, the Service Centre is located at 2045 Broad Street.
“Offices are open weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5. For after-hours and weekend support, they can contact an emergency shelter, Mobile Crisis Services if available in their community, or the police. On the next business day after someone uses emergency shelter the ministry will work with the individual or family on their longer term plan for stable housing.
“When a person reaches out for assistance, the ministry assesses the individual or family needs. Those who need shelter will be referred to an Emergency Shelter provider or for an emergency short-term hotel stay. Benefits may also be provided for essential expenses such as food or personal items.
“The Ministry of Social Services continues to be a partner, offering support to people experiencing homelessness by connecting them to income and housing supports, while partner agencies and organizations support specific issues people may be experiencing, such as mental health or addictions issues.”