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Supportive Housing's Catch-22 for Single Parents on Welfare

Losing your kids once can lead to losing your shelter -- which makes it harder to get back your kids. First of two.

By Katie Hyslop 13 Apr 2016 | Tyee Solutions Society

Katie Hyslop reports on affordable housing for Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop, or read her previous reporting published on The Tyee here.

This series is produced by Tyee Solutions Society. TSS funders neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS produced articles, please visit www.tyeesolutions.org for contacts and information.

The shortage of affordable housing doesn't just put some Canadian families in constant stress and fear of outright homelessness -- it can also contribute to breaking families up, or keeping them apart.

That's what happened to single mom Blaine Clayton.

In 2013, Clayton was struggling. Sharing a BC Housing subsidized two-bedroom apartment with her two boys under the age of eight, the young mother was, by her own admission, drinking so heavily that the Ministry of Children and Family Development took the boys into care.

But Clayton wanted to turn her life around. Her social worker, she said, promised that if she entered treatment and got sober, BC Housing would hold her apartment for her and the ministry would return her kids.

In January 2014, she entered a two-month residential treatment program for alcohol an hour away from her Vancouver home. Clayton got sober and has stayed clean since. But neither promise came true.

Halfway through treatment, Clayton found out BC Housing was evicting her. "They wanted me to move out while I was in treatment," she said.

But since she had to finish her rehab program to get her kids back, the agency allowed Clayton the first two weeks in March to find new housing.

Even so, the eviction notice revealed just how precarious Clayton's housing and family situation had been.

While she was still drinking, the ministry allowed her three overnight visits a week with her two eldest boys, then ages seven and three, because her two-bedroom apartment provided a safe place to spend the night. Because of those visits, BC Housing let her keep the apartment.

The moment she entered rehab and her boys were no longer visiting, BC Housing considered that she no longer qualified for the apartment that had made their visits acceptable to the ministry.

As her program came to an end in February 2014, Clayton discovered she was pregnant. She applied for and secured a small bachelor unit in the Aboriginal Mother Centre, a supportive temporary housing complex for indigenous moms facing homelessness and/or trying to get their kids back from the ministry.

Clayton was clean and housed, but still apart from her kids. Her former social worker was on maternity leave. Her replacement refused to allow Clayton to spend overnights with the boys because, she claimed, the admittedly minute bachelor pad wasn't safe for them.

"We were wondering why [it wasn't deemed safe]," Clayton said. "Because you needed a fob to get in, there's cameras everywhere, there's staff 24-7."

It took until December 2014, almost six months after she was supposed to be reunited with her family, for overnight visits with her boys to resume.

'You'd be surprised how often it happens'

Clayton's story isn't uncommon. "I think if you talk to frontline service workers, you would see this happens a lot," said Lorraine Copas, executive director of the Social Planning and Research Council of BC.

Without having their kids with them at least part time, someone on welfare can lose their BC Housing suite. Income assistance can also be reduced, making it even harder to secure the stable housing that the ministry demands a parent have before they regain custody.

On the flip side, inadequate or unsafe housing can be a factor in the ministry's decision to remove children from their homes in the first place.

It's a problem the social planning council highlighted in a recent report co-written with other anti-poverty groups on the struggles faced by single moms on income assistance.

"That's actually some of the feedback that I received on this report," Copas said, "[that] you'd be surprised how often it happens."

That's certainly been true among Sandra Taylor's clients. The substance misuse counsellor at Watari Counselling & Support Services sees mostly low-income adults in the Downtown Eastside.

For many, she said, a temporary apprehension of their kids has had an ongoing impact on their housing, or vice versa.

Some low-income parents have responded to the shortage of family-sized, secure and affordable housing in the Vancouver core by moving to the suburbs. Housing may be cheaper, but they also lose contact with support services, most of them clustered downtown, as well as family and friends.

Others are forced to pilfer their food, clothing and transportation funds to pay rent.

"I call them my silent warriors," Taylor said, "because now they're afraid to ask for help. If they let anybody know they're struggling, they believe they're going to be at risk again for losing their kids."

Ministries says they're there to help

The Ministry of Children and Family Development insists that the condition of housing by itself is rarely the sole or even a major factor in child apprehensions.

The conditions of housing "would only result in removal if the lack of housing or condition of the house posed an immediate danger to children and the parents were unable or unwilling to protect the children from that danger," the ministry said in an emailed statement.

Examples of such immediate dangers, it said, were the presence of mould, raw sewage or exposed electrical wires.

For its part, BC Housing reviews files of families who have had children apprehended every six months, its spokesperson said in an email. "If the resident is still actively working to have the children rejoin the household, another short-term review date can be set," the statement added.

But Aboriginal Mother Centre founder Penny Kerrigan, who now serves as vice-president of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, said she's seen firsthand how BC Housing and the ministry's best intentions can go awry for low-income, mainly indigenous, families.

"This has been an ongoing issue," for her clients, Kerrigan said, "with problems with mould, bed bugs [and] landlords, including BC Housing, that won't repair buildings."

According to BC Housing, 235 -- or about four per cent -- of its units were vacant as of December 2015. Some were awaiting new assigned tenants; others had no eligible tenants because of the size or style of the unit.

But many were also empty because they needed repairs or renovations in order to be occupied safely.

Kerrigan singles out BC Housing's Raymur Place on the edge of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and Strathcona neighbourhoods for poor repair, recounting the story of a low-income single mom-to-be who discovered bed bugs while living in the complex.

As the young woman was close to her due date, her social worker told her she'd have to move if the problem wasn't fixed, but offered no help either in finding alternate affordable housing or treating the bugs.

"When there's bed bugs, you've got to wash everything in your house. You've got to get rid of mattresses. You've got to really do a lot of work," Kerrigan said. "And how can you do that if you have no money?"

Both BC Housing and the ministry say they work across ministries to help families stay in their homes, to get unsafe housing repaired, and to keep families united or get them reunited as quickly as possible.

The ministry added that it will provide financial help, for example, to treat pests or move clients into hotels until repairs are done or new housing found.

But both Kerrigan and Taylor say they know families who aren't being helped by either agency. Many feel left on their own to find social housing, filling out multiple applications and making monthly calls to several different housing providers to stay on their radar.

"Most of the people that I work with really don't have those skills, unfortunately," Taylor said. "Or they may not have a computer, or their phone minutes are very limited."

Much worse for aboriginal moms

Most of the people struggling with housing and child protection conflicts in Vancouver whom Taylor and Kerrigan know are low-income, aboriginal single moms.

The same is true for as many as half Katrina Harry's clients. Harry is the lead lawyer at the Parent Legal Centre, a Legal Aid BC pilot program aimed at resolving child protection issues before they reach the courts, and offering parents legal representation if they do.

The majority of her clients in the Lower Mainland struggle with finding affordable family housing.

Instead, they scrimp on food and clothing to keep apartments "where the majority of their income is going to housing, leaving them with lesser means to address the basic needs of the household," Harry said.

Some she knows have kids walking 45 minutes to an hour to school, because there's nowhere closer they can afford. That sort of housing stress ripples through the rest of family life.

"Housing is a root issue" for a family, Harry said. "If you have safe, affordable housing, that can make it easier to do things like getting the child to and from school."

Without it, "it compounds the issues parents are facing financially, which makes it a lot more difficult for them to succeed."

Clayton, still clean, has since secured a three-bedroom transitional apartment and has three of her now four children with her -- one son with special needs remains in care. But her tenancy will end next January.

She's languished on wait-lists for a permanent three-bedroom unit with either BC Housing or Lu'ma Native Housing since before she left the Mother Centre this past January.

BC Housing couldn't say how long waits were for two bedroom and larger units, but Clayton waited two years for the two-bedroom she lost -- and that was with a fast-tracked application because she had children.

Clayton would like to live near Commercial Drive, where her family and the boys' school are located. But she currently receives $1,075.58 per month from income assistance and another $369 in monthly child tax benefits.

As of last fall, the average rent in the area for a three-bedroom or larger suite was $1,319. That would leave the mother of three growing boys at home just $125.58 a month for everything else.

That's if they could find a vacant three-bedroom. Last fall, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation found 70 three-bedroom or larger units out of almost 5,000 private rentals in East Hastings where the Commercial Drive neighbourhood is found.

The vacancy rate for units of that size is zero per cent.

Read the second part of this two-part series here: How Dryden, Ontario, is changing the housing outlook for struggling single parents.  [Tyee]

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