Fortunately, most people will never know what it is like to try and survive without a roof over their head. Nobody dreams of being homeless and nobody chooses to be homeless. But even in a city the size of Steinbach the issue of homelessness, while less visible than other larger centres, is alarmingly prevalent.
For the past six years, Irene Kroeker has been selflessly donating her time as a volunteer with Steinbach Community Outreach. In her experience, homelessness is a much bigger issue than most might think. Kroeker says in an average year, she'll provide aid to as many as two hundred people or more through her outreach work.
"It's definitely more of an invisible type of homelessness here in Steinbach," she says. "Some of the people I come across are actually sleeping in the park or on a bench somewhere, but most often they're 'couching'. It's too cold three seasons of the year to sleep outside, so often they do find shelter on somebody's couch," Kroeker explains. "Other than that, we do have Today House. I will get calls from those in an emergency situation and we'll put them up at the shelter."
It's estimated that as many as 300,000 Canadians are currently experiencing homelessness, and a further 1.7 million can barely afford basic shelter. Here in Manitoba, lack of affordable housing continues to be a huge issue as the rise in housing costs is far outpacing wage increases. From 2005 to 2012, average rent costs in the province increased by 33 percent, while minimum wage rose by only 19.5 percent. For many here in Steinbach, having to make the decision between paying rent and buying food is a harsh reality. And for others a job loss, divorce, or other catastrophic life event is the catalyst that for some, leads to a life on the street.
"You would be amazed at how many times whole families become homeless," Kroeker says. "Very often, finances are to blame. They live paycheque to paycheque and if anything unexpected happens they are unable to pay the rent and they are evicted." She adds, "Sometimes they are only a couple of paycheques away from becoming homeless, and that is very, very disturbing."
Twenty-four year old Tom Smith was born in Winnipeg and moved to Steinbach with his family in his early teens. Tom’s first experience with homelessness took place when he was kicked out of the house at the age of twelve.
Smith says, "I probably didn't make very wise choices when I was younger." He adds, "I've burned most of the bridges with my family. It's been like that for the last little while."
Some of the choices that Smith refers to involved drugs and alcohol. And without the support of his family, the definition of 'home' became quite different from what he'd been used to.
"It was A.D. Penner Park, or my tent, or simply on a bench," he reflects with a slight hint of amusement. "It's not funny, but it’s life and that’s what it was."
For Tom Smith, after years of alcohol and drug use and time spent in and out of shelters, it seems as though his life is finally on track. He now has his own apartment and earns a living as a chicken catcher, but he often finds himself looking back on those nights spent under the stars at A.D. Penner Park.
"It has been tough, and it has been rough," he says. "I think about the mistakes I've made and how I can avoid them in the future." Smith adds, "It’s nobody's fault. They were my decisions. I made my choices and I'm going to continue to make them. Hopefully they'll be in the right direction from here on."
The issue of homelessness is one that unfortunately continues to grow here in Steinbach, and one that isn't likely to go away any time soon. Irene Kroeker says the demand has become so great the need for volunteers like her has increased as well.
"Now that the job has become so big, people have told me that there needs to be somebody else who does what I do," she says, referring to her work with Steinbach Community Outreach. Kroeker also issues a plea, "If there is someone who is willing to invest a lot of time and energy, I would love to hear from them." She adds, "There's a lot to do."