‘We jumped through so many hoops’: Homeless couple recount process in accessing social housing

For over two and half years, Noah and Shawn have been unhoused, relying on the shelter system and sleeping outdoors on occasion in Toronto.

“When you wake up in the morning, you realize where you are again. You’re outside or you’re in a parking garage,” Noah said.

“You never sleep when you’re outside, you always have one eye open.”

Global News has agreed to identify the couple by their first names only, due to privacy reasons.

In the fall, the couple connected with a housing worker from Na-Me-Res, an organization that provides outreach, transitional and permanent housing services for Indigenous men. They were told there could be a rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing unit available for the couple to move into through the rapid rehousing initiative.

“There was a possibility that someone who (sought) interest in the unit may not want the unit and if they did not want the unit, it was ours and I was in shock,” said Shawn.

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Shawn said the couple worked with the housing worker to gather all the necessary documents to get the housing unit. They needed new identification, birth certificates and also proof that previous arrears had been paid.

“They needed signed releases saying they could act on our behalf for the application. They needed to fill out the application itself and when it came to the application, Noah and I had to provide proof we had paid arrears, we had to provide proof that we paid for ID,” said Shawn.

“We jumped through so many hoops thinking finally we have an apartment.”

The application, however, was rejected.

A letter from the City of Toronto housing secretariat said the couple was ineligible for RGI housing over unpaid arrears with the District Municipality of Muskoka and the Ottawa Community Housing Corporation — $896.55 and $32.50, respectively.

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But documents Shawn said were submitted as part of the application show the couple had entered into a payment plan with the District Municipality of Muskoka and Ottawa Community Housing had been paid back in full in 2020.

“They said the receipts were not valid. They needed an email to accompany them,” Shawn said, adding that they provided more documents proving arrears had been paid.

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A letter from Ottawa Community Housing said Shawn had paid his arrears in full since Dec. 21, 2020.

But Shawn said the unit had already been given to another person.

“I want us to be stable, to know that it’s the winter, we have somewhere to go and we are going to be OK. It was really frustrating,” said Noah.

Click to play video: 'Rally on National Housing Day calls for more affordable units'

Rally on National Housing Day calls for more affordable units

In a statement, Abi Bond, executive director of the City of Toronto’s Housing Secretariat, said Shawn and Noah’s “household application for rent-geared-to-income (RGI) assistance is currently eligible, with a homeless priority status. They are presently working with a city-funded Streets to Homes Outreach Organization and they have been offered a new unit to view through the City’s Rapid Rehousing Program.”

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“Within two days of being made aware of the couple’s situation, staff from the Housing Secretariat’s Access to Housing team was able to work with the couple to resolve the outstanding social housing arrears issues with another municipality.”

Bond said the city’s social housing system has specific requirements in order to be eligible for RGI assistance and it is subject to the Housing Services Act legislation.

“This includes a requirement to collect ID to verify identity and status in Canada, as well as to ensure no arrears are outstanding or without a payment plan at other social housing providers across the province,” Bond said in the statement.

“Ontario social housing providers regularly submit arrears information into PWAD (Provincial-Wide Arrears Database). Should applicants have difficulty with steps of the application process, Access to Housing is able to provide information, referrals, and, as required, liaise with other Ontario Service Managers to seek resolutions to complex issues impacting applicants’ eligibility.”

There are currently 81,042 households waiting for social housing and advocates say the process to get rent-geared-to-income housing can be difficult to navigate for some.

“It’s not necessarily a very fair or equitable process. Sometimes we get these allotments of RGI housing which goes to people largely on a discretionary basis,” said Diana Chan McNally, harm reduction case manager with All Saints Church Community Centre, adding that there are other requirements, like having taxes completed.

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“When you’re surviving day to day, it’s not necessarily something that is top of mind, to have your taxes done and on top of that, you need to have all of your ID. If you’re someone who is living outdoors, holding onto ID is next to impossible. Things get lost (or) thrown out.”

Chan McNally said more can be done to help get people into housing more quickly.

“If we are actually talking about housing first, provide the housing first. We can deal with taxes and ID as long as we know who they are, we can deal with that afterward,” said Chan McNally.

Steve Teekens, executive director with Na-Me-Res, said while there are a lot of required steps to undergo in order to get RGI housing, those steps are necessary.

“There is a lot of hoops, but they are required hoops because if you’re going to get rent-geared-to-income, it’s imperative to understand what their income is,” said Teekens.

“Our staff will help clients access ID if they don’t have ID. We do that as quick as we can…. Often too, we make sure their taxes are up to date.”

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Shawn said the process left him frustrated and he said he believes others have encountered similar barriers.

“We are not the only people in this situation,” he said.

“The system is designed to keep a homeless person homeless.”

On Monday, the couple were informed another unit had become available and they are resubmitting their application in hopes of getting permanent housing.

“Just to have that stability, it would be great on our health, our mental health. It would be so much better,” Noah said.

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