Helping the Homeless in CBRM

Fifteen years ago, my first assignment for The Cape Bretoner (a magazine that unfortunately ceased publication in 2006) was a story on homelessness in Cape Breton. I don’t recall if the 2003 winter was as severe as the past few weeks have been, but there were signs of hope and optimism around the problem of providing shelter to those who had no place to live. Although I became familiar with the term “couch-surfers” — those who depend on the kindness of friends for a bed rather than spending the night outside or in a car or in some public space — I also discovered there were many people attempting to provide other types of shelter to “couch-surfers” and others.

The freezing cold we’ve experienced so far this year caught many by surprise and made finding shelter, especially for homeless men, a number one priority for the many community groups and individuals involved with what is, unfortunately, still a major problem in our area. For a few days, it appeared that there was no such assistance available for women, but it soon became apparent that such was not the case — Every Woman’s Centre continues to help homeless women as it has for 20 years.


Helping women

As co-coordinators of Every Women’s Centre, established in Sydney in 1992, Raylene Theriault and Louise Smith-MacDonald oversaw the opening of the first women’s shelter in Sydney in 1997: “Almost Home.” Although Transition House, established in 1981, came to the assistance of women who were victims of domestic abuse, providing a safe place for them and for their children, women who were homeless for other reasons traveled well under the radar at the time. The opening of Every Woman’s Centre, gave them a place where they could drop in and socialize with other women in similar circumstances and openly discuss the difficulties in their lives that had resulted in their homelessness. The opening of the shelter was a major step in assisting these women providing, as it did, a homelike atmosphere where they were able to live comfortably and have access to assistance with the many problems that arise when you have “no permanent address.”

Theriault, who vividly recalls the opening of “Almost Home” 20 years ago, knows better than most the toll homelessness can take on women, especially those in middle-age who had always had a roof over their heads while they cared for their families but who, due to divorce or other circumstances, find themselves unable to afford the family home.

The reasons for homelessness are many and varied and can include substance abuse, mental health problems, lack of education or work. Poverty is always an underlying factor with so many, both women and men, and accessing what government assistance is available is practically impossible if you don’t have that “permanent address” as mentioned above, or a phone. In fact, given the going rate for housing, the amount allocated for it by Community Services hardly covers rent, and even with a personal allowance, heat, light and a phone, not to mention food on the table, are not always easily attainable. (The situation is particularly difficult for single, non-seniors.)


Helping men

Fred Deveaux is executive director of the Cape Breton Community Housing Association, a non-profit agency established in 1977 to “provide a safe and supportive environment for people with mental illness during their recovery process.” Deveaux oversees the Community Homeless Shelter in Sydney, and his clients are men whose average age is 40 but who may be older, receiving Old Age Pensions or Canada Pensions.

Many of Deveaux’s clients at the homeless shelter are placed by Housing First CBRM, an agency of the Cape Breton Community Housing Association, which attempts “to quickly move men experiencing homelessness into permanent housing as well as providing them with other necessary supports. Deveaux says younger men, especially those aged 16-19, can sometimes experience forms of exclusion in society that make it difficult for them to access income support and housing, so Housing First CBRM makes it a priority to find permanent and stable housing for such youth given their special “vulnerabilities.” The men who become residents of the shelter come from all over Cape Breton, Deveaux says, and just as with women seeking shelter, they face many challenges.


Helping youth

Access 808, originally 808 George, is a drop-in centre for youth aged 16-24 that opened in 2013 on George Street in Sydney and is run by CaperBase Outreach Services, an interdisciplinary team of health professionals working with youth, families, schools and other community partners, under the umbrella of the Nova Scotia Health Authority. Although not a shelter, Access 808 offers youth a place to shower and a wide-range of activities and free programs to assist these young people with the various struggles in their lives. The facility’s staff of five includes a social worker, and offers counseling services.

Youth are made aware of the many community services and supports that are available to them including, food banks, health services and hotlines, as well as youth health centres, of which there are 10 around the island, all set up in schools (although young people do not have to be attending that school to avail themselves of the services). Access 808 is open from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM, Monday to Thursday, although community outreach workers are available by phone on Fridays. Check out its well-designed and welcoming website.


Forever homes

The bottom line is that there are many groups and many individuals, whether support workers for Every Woman’s Centre, Transition House or the Community Homeless Shelter or Access 808, whose entire workday is involved with some aspect of homelessness.

Both Every Woman’s Centre and Transition House now rent apartments from landlords and then sublet them to clients. Thanks to some very generous landlords, and to equally generous community groups and individuals, these homes or apartments are beautifully furnished, providing those who were once without one, a comfortable, safe and secure place to live.

This idea of providing permanent rather than emergency shelter to the homeless is being explored right now in a number of Canadian cities. In the wake of the recent homeless shelter crisis in Toronto, Tim Richter, president of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, told CP reporter Colette Derworiz that Montreal, Edmonton, Hamilton, Guelph and London have all “put efforts into housing the homeless in recent years.” Derworiz reports that Montreal has found homes for about 600 people in the last two years, while Edmonton’s Homeward Trust has housed over 6,500 people since 2009.

In Edmonton, Susan McGee, chief executive officer of Homeward Trust, says the group works to implement Edmonton’s Community Plan on Housing and Support Services. The trust administers funds from the three levels of government together with additional donations and other “in-kind revenues” and the “support and sponsorship of community organizations and businesses,” meaning that they work with those who have been involved with the homeless and bring necessary knowledge and expertise to the table.

All the local groups mentioned have that knowledge and expertise. Both Every Woman’s Centre and Transition House have seen the benefits of housing clients in apartments, and with the continued (and increased) assistance of all three levels of government, more homeless people could be permanently housed.

Meanwhile, kudos to all those who are working diligently to assist the homeless in our area.

They are legion!



Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.






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