How a Sooke family fell through the cracks and into hidden homelessness
Non-profit says the current system is broken, doesn’t benefit low-income households
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Non-profit says the current system is broken, doesn’t benefit low-income households
Tears welled up in Jess Alford's eyes as she held her sobbing daughter Morgana in the back seat of her car.
Just moments before, the six-year-old was full of energy, off of the high from a playdate with her sister and close friends.
Any ounce of joy that was brought into the Alfords’ family car had just been erased with an innocent, yet simple question: “So are we going home now?”
Jess’ heart dropped.
The family had been searching for a new home for nearly two months after she and her husband Tony found out the place they were renting in Sooke had been sold to new owners. Suddenly, they were in a time crunch to find a new home for themselves, their three kids, and their three cats.
Most listings Jess found were out of her range. Homes across Greater Victoria were set between $2,400 to $2,800. At the time, she and her husband were paying $1,885 for three bedrooms, two baths, and a den, with water and hydro included. None of the listings she scrolled through included any utilities.
The family would take tours of several open houses in between packing up their belongings, but after countless rejections, Jess and Tony started attending showings on their own.
With a handful of days remaining and no home secured yet, Jess and Tony made the painful decision to split up the family. Morgana and her older sister, Maria, would move in with one family friend and 15-year-old Mason would move in with his parents into another friend’s home.
“Honey, we’re not going back there,” Jess said quietly. “We don’t live there anymore.”
Four to five days a week, Jess works a minimum wage, full-time retail job in Sooke. When she’s not there, she’s looking for odd jobs to supplement her income, such as housekeeping. Jess is the main provider for her family.
Tony was diagnosed with fibromyalgia more than a decade ago. Since then, he’s suffered severe pain and stiffness all over his body, to the point where he had to quit his job and receive disability assistance.
Tony says the worst of his symptoms, such as experiencing paralysis, having trouble speaking, and dealing with migraines, happens in the early mornings and late evenings. In the past two years, he’s been able to cope by self-prescribing serotonin pills, which he claims alleviates around 80% of his 60 debilitating symptoms. He pointed out that he needs to take two hot baths a day to avoid flare-ups. If Tony stops taking the pills for more than two days, a barrage of symptoms come back in full force.
“Every other day, I debate whether I should end my life or run away,” Tony says.
“The only reason I’m even slightly together is because I’m almost at the end of figuring this [illness] out. If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t be here right now. I would be buried. I just want to make my family’s life better. We have to fight for our kids. They are amazing. They’re so incredibly cute. And they deserve the world.”
As a rule, the family doesn't have many extra bills and expenses besides paying their rent and their lease for their car and insurance. They don’t have cable and their internet has become more affordable with Connecting Families, a federal initiative to provide affordable high-speed internet access to low-income families.
In fact, none of them have cell phones, either. Jess uses a free phone emulator on her laptop to stay in contact with her co-workers.
“You spend most of your day trying to hold yourself together because you’ve got those three kids looking at you,” Jess says.
The move to the area came seven years ago after the family had been living with Jess’s parents in Langford. With Morgana soon to be born, Jess and Tony decided to move out to Sooke, in part due to familial disputes and because they found the coastal town to be family-oriented and affordable. But with most rentals costing an additional $500 to $900 for a similar space, Jess is at her wits end to figure out how to save extra funds or cut any other expenses.
We aren’t doing enough, Jess often thinks to herself while lying awake at night.
If we were doing enough, we wouldn’t be homeless.
While some may colloquially use the term ‘couchsurfing,’ the proper term is hidden homelessness, according to Doug King, executive director of non-profit Together Against Poverty Society (TAPS).
“All eyes have been on the street homeless situation and the encampments recently, but those experiencing hidden homelessness are growing,” King says.
“They are in the midst of a real crisis in this pandemic. Those are the people that are really at risk of losing if we don’t come up with a way to help catch those people who barely get by with temporary shelter from friends or family.”
Since most people experiencing hidden homelessness don’t talk openly about their struggles, TAPS doesn’t have a good estimate on how many Greater Victorians are in a similar situation to the Alfords’, which is a big concern for King.
In September 2020, the Sooke Shelter Society created an online survey in an attempt to understand the needs of the homeless community. In the society’s 2021 report, 76% identified themselves as having current accommodations, yet felt at risk of homelessness. The report points out that the figures represented only provide a “tip of the iceberg” view of the current situation.
Sherry Thompson, executive director of the society, says their long-term goal is to develop a strategy with the Sooke Homeless Coalition, which is composed of several community groups in Sooke. But until then, she’s unable to adequately help those experiencing hidden homelessness in Sooke due to their survey being filled out anonymously, their main focus on the visible street population, and their lack of funding for more employees.
The Alfords qualify for a provincially regulated annual earnings exemption, which allows the family to earn up to $18,000 a year while receiving disability assistance. But the moment they make a dollar more, the equal amount will be taken out of the disability income. Notably, Jess’ 15-year-old son is able to earn money without having it count against the disability assistance, but on the strict condition that he’s enrolled in public school full time.
Jess can’t apply for rental assistance either because then the government would count it as “double-dipping” and take away a portion of her husband’s disability. The shelter society is able to provide an emergency rental allowance, which would go directly to the landlord, but it’s something that would only be used as a last option due to the society’s limited funding.
Jess claims she’s been told by case workers to divorce her husband and apply for single mother welfare, while Tony continues to claim disability.
“Case workers are literally telling me to abuse the system because even they know it’s not enough for a family,” Jess says. “It’s become a system that’s so entrenched in stopping itself from becoming abused that people who really need it the most are not getting what they need.”
Jess says although her situation is precarious right now, she will do everything in her power to keep her family together without cheating the system.
King calls the situation that the Alfords are being confronted with as “clawback.”
“As soon as you take one step up, they take the amount of support that they’ve given you, and claw it back,” King says.
“It’s a broken system. It’s no way to live because you don’t end up really advancing at all. It’s based on these concepts of benefits from, honestly, almost 50 years ago where that amount was essentially the same as a low-wage job. It’s awful to see somebody go through this and run a benefit system to continually put people on the brink of disaster.”
King says that if you look at the bigger picture, it’s not in the government’s interest to act so strict with benefits. He pointed out that most people will end up placing a bigger burden on the provincial and federal government once they enter homelessness and need more assistance in the long run.
He says it’s tough for the province to reason and intervene more proactively instead of reactively, because they don’t necessarily see the other costs that keep people struggling with hidden homelessness afloat. He says most people will end up relying on multiple avenues of support, such as BC Housing, local food banks, or non-profits. If one of those supports falls through, that could be the final straw for some.
“We’re just a bandaid,” said Kim Metzger, president of the Sooke Food Bank. “For a lot of our clients, it’s not bad money management, it’s poverty. These are working people who end up in truly unfortunate situations.”
Metzger says their team serves around 400 households each month. She says they don’t ask for any personal information to access the food. Most clients will end up using the food bank for four to five months, then are able to meet their own basic needs. She pointed out how touched she is when previous clients, like the Alfords, end up donating back to the non-profit.
“Our welfare systems and disability system are not adequate for people to survive,” King says.
“The main reason is because rent is too high. We’re seeing more people who don’t necessarily have addictions or mental health issues, but are trying to survive with this assistance. They still can’t do that, especially in urban centres.”
Tammi Dimock has watched as countless Sooke homeowners turn “huge coin” for their homes in the past year. Meanwhile, the Sooke realtor with Royal LePage Realty says the vacancy rate is “nearly zero” and renters are continuing to be displaced.
“The market is horrible for anyone looking to own or rent, especially for families,” Dimock says. “Homeowners are cashing in big. I heard of a family that moved into an RV and is living around Jordan River after the home they were renting was sold in the Saseenos neighbourhood. It seems like no matter where you turn, there’s still a shortage.”
She says if you’re trying to find a single-family dwelling to live in below $650,000, you’ll be hard pressed to find it in Sooke. Even if you get your bid in, Dimock says you’ll potentially be competing with up to 50 other applicants.
Even though Sooke has one of the most affordable markets within Greater Victoria, the housing supply has not caught up with the demand. As of June 1, there were 92 active listings on the market. Dimock says there’s usually around 250 listings up during this time of year.
“How can I compete in a buying market when there are so many places being sold much higher than they were listed?” Alford says. “I make sure I don’t overpay for my landline. The purchasing game is way too aggressive, let alone the rental market.”
According to a 2020 report by the Victoria Foundation, both the cost of living and housing were tied in the top two spots (35%) for the biggest issues facing Greater Victoria today. Homelessness came in second at 30%.
In total, 74% of Greater Victoria respondents said the availability of affordable rental accommodations to meet their needs was poor or below average.
King says the first thing he wants to see introduced in BC to actively fight hidden homelessness is reintroducing vacancy control, which ties rent to the unit instead of the person.
For example, if someone moves out of their current rental, the landlord would be restricted in how much they can raise the rent for the next person. King believes reintroducing the policy which existed in BC from 1974 to 1983 would cause an increase in wealth and well-being for the province’s lowest-income people.
In addition, King says the government needs to look at providing a level of benefit support for people on disability, so they can not only meet their rent, but also their basic needs on top of that.
An expert panel researching basic income for all BC residents found that there are better ways to improve people’s lives, according to a 2021 report. Notably, a $20,000 universal income for every BC resident between 18 and 64 would end up costing $51 billion dollars, effectively doubling the current provincial budget. The panel agreed that there was a need to target basic income for three specific groups, including those with disability.
“If our government doesn’t step in to help these people, the cycle continues,” King says. “You might get one person off the street, but then you’re going to replace them with someone else in a similar situation.”
Looking ahead, the Alfords are actively searching for a place for July. Although they’re willing to move across the Island to find an affordable place to live, Jess and Tony are holding out hope to stay in Sooke or the Westshore. After a week of separation, the family has now been reunited under one roof, as Jess and Tony say they didn’t want to burden their friends for too long.
“You think that the more you bide through your situation, it’ll get better,” Jess says.
“Sometimes, it can get a lot worse. The norm won’t change unless people start standing up and demanding more action by those in power to help renters [...] because this is ludicrous. Don’t suffer silently.”