Once a homeowner with an assistant manager job — Shannon Johnson now sleeps in a farm feed bag on the streets of London, Ont. with her bullboxer dog, Randy.
“I worked all my life. I made one bad decision and it put me on the street,” said the 53-year-old.
As advocacy group The Forgotten 519 stages a hunger strike calling for the city to change homelessness supports, people experiencing homelessness face the daily realities of growing needs for housing, mental health and addiction supports in an overloaded system.
“It’s horrible,” said Johnson. “I’ve worked all my life ’till I was 16 and I don’t get any credit for any of that. I am nothing now because I’m guilty by location. I’m guilty by appearance. I’m guilty by association.”
Just two years ago, Johnson lived in an apartment in London. Outside of St. Joseph’s Hospitality Centre on Dundas Street East, she points to a collapsible green wagon piled with bags and a pillow.
“That’s what I own, from a home full of stuff down to a pull wagon.” Some of her belongings were thrown in the garbage, she said — her birth certificate that “took years to get” among them.
Among the challenges she faces, not having running water is at the top. Johnson wants to see more washrooms and showers accessible to people experiencing homelessness close by, she said. She also wants to see more respect.
“Everybody says, you know, ‘You’re here because of your own choices.’ I didn’t choose for some of the things that have happened to me to happen to me. Some of these people didn’t ask to be out here. They don’t want to be out here,” said Johnson.
‘Trying to get on my feet’
James Henry is one of those people. He stops by St. Joseph’s Hospitality Centre about once a week for a meal. Daily visits to the hospitality centre are reaching 500 between breakfast and lunch — the most staff have ever seen.
“I’ve been homeless for about five years trying to get on my feet,” he said. “I’ve tried many times to get help.” He’s seen things get worse over the last five years because of drug problems and addictions.
“I’ve lost a lot of people over that change just because of the stuff that they go through on a daily basis,” said Henry. “It’s very frustrating; it’s very sad.” He believes if they had more support, his friends would still be here.
Advocates with The Forgotten 519 are raising alarm bells over increasing deaths among people experiencing homelessness in the city. The group wants to put an end to the removal of encampments, and see more support from city relief workers at encampments. They also want to see two indoor spaces — one downtown and the other in the east-end — provide 24/7 support for people without access to a shelter. The group is made up of frontline workers, healthcare professionals and physicians.
Their demands resonate with Henry. When the 50-year-old set up a tent in the forested area in Gibbons Park, he said he came back one day from getting a drink of water to find his tent, belongings and medication gone.
“They just basically threw my stuff out on the ground and took my tent and must have trashed it,” he said. The tent had been given to him from a church he visits for meals — and it wasn’t replaced.
Situation is complex
Kenny Neufeld, 41, has spent seven years living on the streets of London. Lately he stays in “makeshift tent” in a parking lot near Dundas and Elizabeth Streets. On Monday his belonging — from jewelry to clothing and crafts — were thrown out. “By the time they woke me up, all I had was tarps and a couple of blankets,” he said.
While he’s is frustrated, he knows the situation is complex.
“If you can give the people the OK to build these encampments, they’re just going to get bigger and bigger. There’s going to be piles of junk everywhere all over the city is just going to make a bigger mess,” he said.
He fears the city is getting more dangerous and wants to see more empty buildings in the city used to help solve the problem.
“There’s so many things that happen day-to-day, you know, people coming down here. We get attacked. We get people throwing stuff in their cars,” he said.
A couple of weeks ago, a woman brought a box over, saying it was a fresh food kit. They found dog feces inside when they opened it.
Other Londoners stop by to bring them food, and he tries to pass on the support to others in need.
“I spend most of my day running around the city helping people out, you know, tiny things here and there trying to make their day better.”
Kindness of strangers
“Being out here is hard,” said 43-year-old Shannon Blake, who’s been experiencing homelessness for more than 10 years and is on a waiting list for affordable housing. She’s lost friends from fentanyl — including her boyfriend.
She says staff at organizations are doing everything they can, and she’s seen them put their own money into helping people. The other day, someone bought her a radio. Another time, a stranger let her borrow their shower, she said.
Still, more needs to be done to help people get off the street, she said.
The hunger strike is set to start Tuesday on the steps of city hall, advocates say. The city says encampments are allowed to exist on a case-by-base basis, but must be dismantled if there are safety issues.
“This is the definition of the wicked problem,” said Steven Turner, city councillor for Ward 11 on CBC’s London Morning. “We’ve put unprecedented amounts of funding and support into into housing and homelessness. However, there’s still a massive issue.”
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