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Former homeless man finds stability, thanks to shelter's housing program

The Coldest Night of Year Feb. 22 raises funds to support Inn From the Cold's transitional housing unit, which helped a local man get out of the forest — literally

It’s been a difficult year for a local man who is trying to rebuild his life after he was a victim of identity theft and his bank accounts were cleaned out by bandits.

Peter, 58, who asked that his last name remain private, said the theft of his life savings, along with a personal line of credit that he never once used, set off a chain of events that led him to homelessness.

“When I first got ripped off, and I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, at first I was ready to commit suicide,” Peter said. “The bank didn’t recognize it as a theft, they said it was my problem, and I didn’t get anything back. That pretty well laid me out flat and that’s what put me on the street.”

The self-described “Jack-of-all-trades and master of none” has worked for decades in the construction industry, mostly as a carpenter. He loves the work and has also done electrical, plumbing, drywalling, and general home renovations.

He was renting an apartment in Aurora before losing it and lived temporarily at a house he was renovating in Newmarket before turning up at seasonal homeless shelter Inn from the Cold, three weeks before its overnight shelter program closed in mid-April 2019.

April and May 2019 found him living rough outside in the forest south of Mulock Drive. But tragedy struck again when someone burned down his tent with all his belongings inside.

“I just write it up as a learning experience, I will bounce back and get back on my feet,” said Peter. “Construction slows down in the wintertime, but I’ll get back to work.”

After Peter’s tent burned to the ground, he turned once again to Inn from the Cold for help. It was there that he learned about its Stability Now transitional housing program, which allows participants to hold a residency in a four-bedroom apartment on the premises, with affordable rent, while they set goals and work with a case manager to find permanent housing.

Since its launch in January 2018, the housing-first program has boasted an 80 per cent success rate in ending chronic homelessness. That means its former tenants have maintained their own housing at a six-month and 12-month check-up point.

“The success of Stability Now shows us that those experiencing chronic homelessness can be successfully housed over the short and medium term,” Inn from the Cold executive director Ann Watson said in the organization’s annual report. “The program has changed lives and has proven to be a stepping stone to successful independent living.”

For Peter, living at the Stability Now apartment with three roommates will give him time to land a good job, a place to store his tools, and access to the other supports offered at the shelter, he said.

“There’s a bad perception of homeless people out there, not everybody is mentally ill, or hooked on drugs or alcohol,” he said, adding that he also does volunteer work at the shelter. “Since I’ve been here last May, I’ve almost stopped drinking, and I don’t miss it at all.”

“Before, I had nowhere to store my tools, and I was always worried about losing my tools. Because if I lose them, I lose my life, basically,” said Peter. “At least now I have some place to store them all together, I know where they are and they’re not going to disappear.”

Stability Now got its start with donations from Canadian Tire Newmarket, Kate and Tom Taylor, Tim Horton’s Newmarket, Bell Canada, CUPE Local 905, The Central York Professional Fire Fighters Association, and an anonymous family. 

But it is fundraisers such as the upcoming annual Coldest Night of the Year walk for the homeless that keeps the housing program humming.

Watson said in a deputation to Newmarket council Monday night that this year marks the eighth time the shelter has participated in the national walk happening in about 145 communities across the country.

Inn from the Cold is currently in seventh place for fundraising nationally. Last year, an unprecedented $90,000 was raised from the walk. Already, the shelter has reached 58 per cent of its $40,000 goal.

“We think that’s pretty phenomenal given the size of Newmarket and that we’re competing against organizations in Toronto and Vancouver. As well, it’s pretty amazing given the size of Inn from the Cold,” Watson said.

So far, 80 local walkers, 23 teams, and 11 volunteers have registered for the walk. And the competition is heating up for the top two fundraising teams, Team Playter, headed by Juliana Playter, and Doug Wilson’s The Next Step, which haved raised $2,890 and $3,254, respectively.

“Both Juliana and Doug have been moved by our clients and their interactions at the Inn, and I think most people who walk through our doors feel the same way,” Watson said. “Whether they come to prepare a community meal, volunteer in the shelter or at the drop-in, meeting one of our clients causes a shift in the way they see homelessness and in their perspective. And it calls people to action.”

“The Inn is really a positive, warm, friendly and welcoming place for all but, most importantly, it produces outcomes that change people’s lives,” Watson said.

For the first time in several years, the shelter has seen the number of people it serves stabilize, Watson said. The overnight shelter program remains full or near full every night, and occupancy overall has doubled in the last three years, but the numbers are holding steady, she said.

“Unfortunately, our ability to move people into the community is being hampered by a private market that is being tapped out, so we see our clients really struggling to secure units to rent,” Watson said.

“Our future plans include being able to quadruple the size of our transitional housing program. Funds raised through Coldest Night of the Year help make this program possible and it fully funds our volunteer coordinator,” she said. 

Peter said that one of his Stability Now roommates has been looking for an apartment for several months with no luck.

“I gave myself two years to get back on my feet, and I will achieve it,” he said.

Newmarket’s Coldest Night of the Year walk for the homeless is on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. The event kicks off at Riverwalk Commons with registration beginning at 4 p.m., and walkers hitting the streets at 5:15 p.m. on either a 2-km, 5-km or 10-km route.

It is believed that by walking at dusk on a cold night, you'll get a sense of the challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness in winter. By fundraising, you can provide much needed funds to a local charity that helps people who need support.

For more information on Newmarket’s Coldest Night of the Year Walk, to register yourself or a team, visit here.