Waterloo – For 15 years, Carolyn Williams didn’t have to worry about where she was going to sleep at night.
This was not possible for a brief period in the mid-2000s.
Williams had problems in her marriage, when she finally decided it was time to leave for good. She had run an art gallery in Cambridge with her husband, and the decision to leave meant she quit her job as well. She ended up in an orphanage in Cambridge before moving to Waterloo to be closer to her daughter.
It was rock bottom, but it was going to get better.
“When you break down and tell people you can’t go to Tim Hortons for coffee, people don’t believe you,” she said. “So, what do you do? Don’t go, drop out of school and let your friends go on living their lives. You’re too proud to say anything, so you don’t say anything.”
With few options, workers at the shelter helped Williams fill out needed government assistance papers and apply for affordable housing.
Williams was in her 60s at the time and eligible for senior housing. She was given three apartments to choose from.
“The first place we went to look at it, my daughter wouldn’t let me out of the car, she was in really bad shape,” Williams said.
The women traveled to the second site – a 60-unit apartment complex in Waterloo – and were home.
“It’s been my home ever since and I absolutely love it,” she said from her kitchen table, spreading a piece of toast that had gotten a little crunchy as she told her story. “I can’t even describe to you what it means to own this apartment: It’s life and death. I have a home that is safe and secure. I have a locked door and a backyard and friends. It’s my life, that’s what it is: it’s a chance in life.”
Rents in the city have risen closely with housing prices over the past two years. The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Waterloo now exceeds $1,600 a month, according to rental site Zumper.
As people age, they become more vulnerable to changes in the housing market, said Rebecca Roy, chief executive of Cambridge Housing. The organization operates 448 units in Cambridge, providing safe and affordable housing for low and middle income families.
“Obtaining affordable housing is just as important – and perhaps most important – for older people as they try to maintain their health, well-being and independence,” she said.
She said many seniors live on a fixed income that makes it impossible to afford living in a retirement home, which can cost upwards of $3,000 a month locally. Affordable new buildings prioritize families looking for two- and three-bedroom units, leaving seniors who may need only one bedroom vulnerable to homelessness.
Williams, who lives on a fixed income, cannot afford today’s market rates. Her rent has been capped at 30 percent of her income since she moved into her apartment 15 years ago.
“I’ve worked my whole life, I’ve paid taxes my whole life, and I think I’ve had a good life,” she said. “I just needed help at the time, and I managed to get it.”
Lola Woldmariam, director of supportive housing at the House of Friendship, said moving from the shelter system to affordable, stable housing is an important step.
“Once an individual is housed, they are able to begin their recovery journey and address aspects of their physical and mental health,” she said.
Stability allowed Williams to actually plan and save money. She prioritizes spending on necessities like food and a phone plan, and she lives within her means. She has also been able to process her relationship with her husband, and the two continue to help each other out with dates and grocery shopping.
“The truth is, if I can’t live in this residence, I’m troubled,” Williams said. “And I am certainly not the only one. There are many of us who have nowhere else to go.”
The Ontario government estimates that 75,000 seniors live in social housing in the province, and they make up about 30 percent of all social housing tenants. Another 50,000 people are on social housing waiting lists.
Amy Osica, director of housing for the Waterloo District, said the number of seniors on her waiting list has increased every year for the past three years, at the same time that the waiting list itself has grown.
And while the need is growing, it is not always a quick process to match seniors to available units.
She said two apartments are currently vacant in the Williams-Waterloo complex. One of them has been vacant for over three months now, and this isn’t the first time this has happened.
“The presentation process takes time,” Osica said. Applicants are given sufficient time to present the unit and make a decision. While consistent schedules are followed, the vacancy period for each vacancy varies and grows if many applicants reject the unit.”
She said unit renewal schedules and giving applicants a reasonable amount of time to vacate existing units could extend these transition periods.
During her 15 years in the apartment, Williams said she witnessed all kinds of incompetence and deviation from the rules.
She has seen grown children huddled in one-bedroom apartments with their adult parents, or renters living six months out of the year in other countries, or entire apartments used for storage while the tenant lives with the spouse in a different location.
“It’s hard to read the newspaper about people who have been forced to live on the streets because there is nowhere to go, and then you see a lot of people taking advantage of the situation,” she said.
“I am so grateful for my apartment – I don’t know where I would be without it – but there is a lot of room for improvement with this system.”