8,000 days homeless, 25-years. Finds hope in Durham Region

Daniel Cullen, a used to be a homeless individual and is now the owner of the H.O.P.E Coalition and a candidate in Ward 2 for Oshawa, Ontario. Photo credit: Dakota Evans

The worst experience was living on the streets for 25 years – the best experience was unwinding the trauma of those 25 years.

In 1978, Daniel Cullen, who is now a published author and runs a program called H.O.P.E Coalition, left his home in Kelowna, BC at 16-years-old. He spent the next 25 years of his life on the streets, in emergency shelters and psychiatric wards.

“Between 1978 and before 1980 I was raped three times, by three different people,” says Cullen. These experiences “messed up” Cullen’s head and he was diagnosed with PTSD.

According to Cullen, one in three females and one in four males living on the streets are abused or sexually exploited. He says they are offered food or clothes in return for sexual favours.

Cullen speaks from experience. A collection of data to provide the homeless community with a voice backs up his experience. This is the second-year a Point in Time (PiT) Count was conducted in the region.

The data, collected from April 16 to 20, 2018, is a snapshot of homelessness in Durham Region. The 2018 PiT Count was funded by the Government of Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy and the Regional Municipality of Durham’s Housing Services Division.

There are 291 homeless individuals in Durham Region. More than half of those individuals are under 25 years old. This was Cullen’s experience. Of the total number homeless in the region, 15 per cent are homeless due to mental illness. This was Cullen’s experience.

Cullen says the homeless are the forgotten.

The data recovered from these surveys will help determine the resources needed to help.

“Over time we will really be able to track these individuals, and see whether the services we provide in our community are allowing them to get the help they need,” says Anika Mifsud, Social Researcher at Community Development Council Durham (CDCD).

The Pit Count shows 13 per cent of individuals in Durham Region who are homeless experience ‘episodic’ homelessness with less than 3 episodes of homelessness in 12 months but no more than 180 days total.

Cullen says he has lived 8,000 days on the streets. The number of days on the street were a result of the trauma he lived while homeless. For years following the trauma, Cullen says his “mind exploded on itself,” which led him to wander the streets doing any drug he could get his hands on and drinking anything to get inebriated.

According to the 2018 PiT Count, of the 291 homeless individuals, 38 per cent are in emergency shelters, and 28 per cent couch surf but don’t always find a way out of homelessness, says Mifsud who is now a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at York University.

The top 3 reasons for homelessness in Durham Region, according to Mifsud, were being unable to pay rent, a conflict with a spouse and illness or medical conditions.

Greg Avery, a homeless prevention worker at CDCD for the past 4 years, says 21 per cent of the people in Durham Region’s homelessness count are Indigenous. Considering only 2 per cent of Durham’s population is Indigenous, “that’s a big number,” he says.

“In major urban areas like Toronto that number can range from 20 to 50 per cent, so when you think of Toronto when you walk by people who are on that street holding up Tim Horton’s cup most of them could be Indigenous,” says Avery.

The number is so high for the Indigenous population because of things like racism, oppression and poor health. Even going through school can be a traumatic event for Indigenous students, according to The Homeless Hub, a web-based research library supported by the Canadian Homeless Research Network.

“Sometimes the best escape is to not be present,” says Avery, when talking about the Indigenous population.

Rick Kerr, who has been a city councillor for Oshawa since 2014, says, “Homelessness is everything from somebody with mental health issues, addiction issues, depression, no home, no shelter, no financial income, and then you have stages of homeless where you have a job, but no permanent address, that’s definition of homelessness.”

According to Kerr, the city doesn’t get involved with the homeless situation because it’s not the city’s responsibility. “But that doesn’t mean that me as an individual councillor can’t get involved with citizens.”

Individuals aren’t homeless because they don’t want to work, says Kerr who has worked with a group of citizens to create The Keepers Project, one of two initiatives Kerr is involved with to fight homelessness.

Kerr says the project was started upon realizing that if you don’t have an address and you can’t get mail, “You don’t exist.”

The Keepers Project provides homeless individuals with lockers and mail slots located at the Simcoe Street United Church. Solar panels are attached to the lockers to charge cell phones. Each individual gets their own unit number.

“All of the sudden that becomes an address, so now you have one of these lockers. You have just taken the next stage forward out of homelessness, with the safety and security of your stuff and a place to receive job offers and mail,” says Kerr.

The second initiative Kerr is working on is the Tiny Homes project. The plan is to have the city build a community of little apartment-sized houses equipped with power and hydro and on a contract-based system allow homeless individuals a place to live, says Kerr.

“When you give someone a challenge or a hope that’s bigger than a challenge they face, they will rise to any level they need to get to,” says Cullen. “And that’s what I do.”

Cullen proposed the idea of Tiny Homes and is currently waiting on the municipal election to finish to continue with the municipality on the project, according to Kerr.

World Homeless Day is an annual event in Durham Region on October 10, this came into fruition when Cullen proposed the idea to the municipality. You can find more information on their website.

In the last two months, Cullen and his H.O.P.E Coalition have fed 2,000 people in Durham Region.

When asked what Cullen thinks of the future of homelessness in Durham Region he says, “Homes. That’s the future.”