When Ink & Iron tattoo parlour owner Lea Maurice decided last November to host a Carleton Place Friday night sleepout to raise awareness of Lanark County youth homelessness, she had no idea that within 24 hours, a local developer would be inspired to take concrete action with plans to construct 13 units of much-needed affordable housing.
As approximately 40 people braved the sub-zero temperatures during the Nov. 17 One Cold Night event, developer Volundur Thorbjornsson drove by at 2:30 am and asked himself what he could do to help. “I was very impressed that people showed up to show their support,” he recalled. As he sat in his office the next morning, he decided that one of his properties – the former Barry’s Pet Food at 31 Townline Road, which he had originally slated for a condo project – would be a perfect location for the new housing.
Within three days, Thorbjornsson had a demolition permit and building plans ready to go, and is now hoping the town of Carleton Place will consider waiving application and building fees given the socially beneficial purpose of the new housing. He is also putting together zoning change and building permit applications.
As a property manager, Thorbjornsson says he and his staff have personally witnessed the issue up close. They’ve discovered people trying to find shelter in storage units or stairwells of buildings he owns. While Thorbjornsson has connected those individuals to social services, he believes his new housing project, with the promise of longer-term, affordable units, will provide the second chance so many require to get back on their feet.
While One Cold Night raised $1,780 to help local charity Cornerstone Landing support young people at risk of homelessness, it also increased the profile of a social issue that tends to be hidden in rural areas. “It was a good opportunity for me to talk individually with people from the local community about the extent of the problem in Lanark County,” said Cornerstone chair Terrilee Kelford, who was part of the group of people aged 16 to 60 who bundled up in parkas and sleeping bags on Bridge Street that night.
Kelford said her organization’s housing case workers have supported over 110 young people since the beginning of 2016. Some of them were experiencing homelessness, others had only temporary shelter and required assistance finding longer-term housing, while certain individuals needed a trustee to receive social assistance. Kelford said that early intervention has prevented many of these young people from becoming homeless.
For many at the sleepout, a 3 a.m. visitor brought the issue very close to home. A young man who had been homeless for two years and never had a sleeping bag shared his story, which Kelford said was a good reminder that the sleepout was “simply a gesture, and in no way could we truly understand what it is like for a young person having to sleep outside in the winter because they have nowhere else to go.”
Participants at the sleepout – which took place the night before the first significant winter storm of the year – got a sense of how cold can accumulate in the body. While Kelford said it is easy for individuals to intellectually conclude that such living conditions are unacceptable, the sleepout participants “could never mimic the sense of fear, the loneliness and hopelessness these young people must feel. We were all able to go home, grab some coffee and a warm shower in the morning and hopefully reflect on the experience. These kids don’t have that luxury. They don’t know when they will have a home. That young man walking by was a sobering reminder of that.”
In the Townline Road project, Kelford envisages young people being able to rent a room, with shared kitchen space and bike storage, helpfully within walking distance of schools, recreation, the food bank, and potential jobs. Cornerstone’s housing case workers could provide support for several youth at a time in one location, while life skills programming and recreation opportunities could also be offered.
“This won’t end youth homelessness in the town but it could be a step in the right direction, and one option for young people requiring a safe place to live,” Kelford enthused. “It could be a win-win for all involved.”
Thorbjornsson is confident that in working with Cornerstone and Lanark County Housing Corporation, his project will be not only be a beautiful building that enhances the neighbourhood, but also a life-saver that goes beyond the rhetoric and photo-ops that often paper over the political inaction that perpetuates the problem.
This was first published in the January issue of Hometown News. Missed an issue? Check them all out online.