You can’t see what someone has overcome at a glance. That is the main message of Path Home Kingston, a new campaign by United Way KFL&A and the City of Kingston that aims to help community members understand that the causes of homelessness are complex and different for each individual.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a sharp focus on homelessness in many communities, including Kingston.
President and CEO of United Way KFL&A Bhavana Varma explained, “There’s a lot of stigma attached to homelessness. We’ve always had people who are on the streets, who are homeless, but it was very evident through the pandemic because you can see a lot more people. And so I think the stigma was becoming quite prevalent: a lot of people with different ideas about how people got to be homeless or their situation.”
“And I think, in speaking with agencies, it’s hard for people who are homeless. They all get to homelessness from a different journey, and it doesn’t take very much for people to face these situations that lead to homelessness,” Varma continued.
“We agreed to be part of this initiative, just to help remind people that firstly, the people we’ve featured and most of the people who are homeless in our community are residents of Kingston who got to where they are by different paths. That’s what it’s really about, telling the stories of how people got to this place, and the supports that are available.”
The campaign, designed by BmDodo Strategic Design, was created with input from frontline agencies, caseworkers, and community members with lived experience. Through a series of advertisements on social media, in print, and through Kingston Transit buses and shelters, the campaign depicts Kingston community members who have been or are currently homeless, showing how their path through life and the experiences impacted their current situation.
This is hoped to provide the community with a sampling of experiences and demonstrate that solutions must be tailored to the individual. As well, it can often take a few tries to find the successful combination of supports to succeed.
It is important to realize, explained Varma, that sharing a life story involving homelessness “takes a lot of courage and we’re honoured that they were comfortable sharing them. It’s one of the privileges of my job that I get to hear from people with lived experience.”
“At our shelter, we have seen every walk of life come through our doors,” explained Amanda Brierley, Supervisor for In From The Cold Emergency Shelter and Kingston Home Base Housing. “What I would like the community to consider is that anyone is only three steps away from homelessness. It is a loss of family – relationship breakdown or death; loss of a job – this has happened even more with the pandemic; and loss of home or being unable to pay rent.”
“We also wanted people to understand that not everybody who experiences homelessness experiences it in the same way. And we can tell people about it, but it doesn’t have much impact,” explained Brierley. “But, if you actually get to see that process that people have had to go through to get where they are today, that path shows people’s journey in life. And if you look at the different stories in the campaign, they are all very different. Some have been raised in very good caring environments, others have come from non-caring environments. Not everybody who has struggled with homelessness have mental health or addiction issues. It really can happen to anybody at any point.”
Ashley O’Brien, Manager of Kingston’s Integrated Care Hub, spoke further to the stigma often associated with homelessness.
“Homelessness is a complex issue, which means there isn’t a simple solution,” she said. “Many people often express that they feel shame about being homeless and people will continue to feel shame until we decrease stigma. We also know that just providing housing to people will not end homelessness. I truly believe people need to experience meaningful connections, belonging, and community to thrive. I believe Kingston is a community that has all the resources it needs to end homelessness, and if we want to actually end homelessness, the answers will come from the people who are experiencing it. They know what they need, we just have to listen.”
To that end, a second goal of the campaign is to put all of the resources Kingston has to offer in one easy-to-access place. Through the Path Home Kingston website, agencies, businesses, and individuals can read stories, find resources to help, learn more about homelessness in the city, and find connections on where to learn more, help, or offer feedback.
Said Varma, “At the United Way, we also get calls from some really great volunteers who tell us, ‘We’ve got someone sleeping in our lobby, what do we do?’ Rather than create a crisis situation, we would like to give them a feeling of connection.” The website can do this by connecting these volunteers to resources.
Varma further explained that the site could, “connect people with a Street Outreach team to help — one is always available. Or maybe they just want to talk to someone who knows about what they should do about this… it might even be something like ‘I’ve got clothes’ or ‘I have a teenager who’s struggling, where do I get them help?’ or ‘I’m facing domestic violence, what do I do?’ Calling 211 is the simplest way to call and get help, but again, providing some of these response resources on our website, some FAQs of the common questions that people go to agencies or the City or the United Way with.”
Varma hopes the project will grow, and said, “It’s obviously a live website, so we’ll keep updating as we get more questions and more people seeking information on more resources that we may not yet know about. So, it’s an active and changing website. But the best part was the fact firstly, we’re very humbled and honoured that people were comfortable sharing their stories.”
More than 235,000 people in Canada experience homelessness in any given year, and 25,000 to 35,000 people may be experiencing homelessness on any given night.
To learn more about Path Home Kingston, visit www.pathhomekingston.com.