The Coldest Night of the Year

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And you thought winters were bad with a roof and four walls... heather shevlin via unsplash

Q&A with YWCA CEO Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen

It might have not actually been the coldest night of the year, but realities can be much crueller for Regina’s homeless population in harsh Saskatchewan winters. The Coldest Night of the Year event took place to advocate and raise money for homelessness. Funds raised went to My Aunt’s Place affiliated with the YWCA, which is the only homeless shelter for women and children in Regina.

On February 26, walkers gathered at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral to set out on a two or five kilometre walk around Regina. After a clan of yellow-toqued walkers returned from their stroll, they were treated to a warm meal in the cathedral. In attendance was Mayor Sandra Masters, who expressed her gratitude to the YWCA for supporting Saskatchewan’s homelessness crisis. “We walk in support of those who struggle to find a workplace, food to feed their families, and those who might be filled with fear and frustration,” said Masters. “As we walk together, we’re supporting organizations whose commitment and work transformed people’s lives, and we can express how grateful we are to such organizations.”

At the beginning of February, the City of Regina executive council announced that they would be going ahead with the controversial rapid housing initiative. “The City of Regina is committed to making our community a better place to live,” said Masters. “As we work in partnership to reduce homelessness, as we work together to find ways to reduce domestic violence and intimate partner violence, and a whole host of other issues that I’d like to say we’re all on the same page for and aligning and making things better here.” CEO of the YWCA, Melissa Coomber-Bendtsen, sat down to chat about the event and stigma surrounding homelessness.

How can people participate in advocating for homelessness if they cannot do so directly?

The biggest piece for us is about advocacy and education around homelessness. Particularly around family homelessness, that homelessness in our city doesn’t just look like a man who sleeps on the side of the street or who panhandles, which I think is a very traditional way of looking at homelessness. More than 50 per cent of the people who experience homelessness in our city are women and their children. Homelessness can look like couch surfing, or it can look like living in an unsafe or precarious situation. I think people can participate by learning, by educating themselves, researching what it looks like, looking into some of the organizations across the city who work with (the) homeless population.

What is a common misconception of homelessness in the Regina area?

I think a common misconception is that, that homelessness affects men who maybe are struggling with addictions, and that is the furthest thing from the truth. I think what I would want people to know the most is that family homelessness is a real crisis in our community. Homelessness also disproportionately effects Indigenous people. The last point in time count that happened in our city, over 80 per cent of (homeless) people counted were Indigenous.

There is an intersectionality of vulnerability of racism that exists…members of the gender and sexually diverse community just disproportionately affects homelessness, more than not. Same with newcomers and folks that are racialized. It’s not just an issue of not having a house, but it’s also an issue of the systems and institutions that create barriers for people who are marginalized. That’s what traps people in homelessness. So, at a point in time when somebody needs a home is one thing – what traps people in that cycle is the barriers and systems that do more harm than good.

What support system should be offered for homelessness that are not currently being offered?

You know, I think that there are a lot of services in our city and our not-for-profit sector that serves homeless individuals, are incredibly good at what they do. I think what’s missing is an understanding of trauma, and an understanding of the roots of trauma that are from colonialism and really looking at how to support people through that trauma. The by-product of it is addiction, mental health, and then of course, homelessness. Not looking at the roots of that cause I think is what’s missing.

What does trauma awareness look like within the YWCA Regina?

We do work from a trauma informed place. So, recognizing that offering services to people regardless of where they’re at and what’s going on is important. Our services are open to people if they’re actively in an addiction or if they’re using, and we don’t turn people away because of that. I think also recognizing that people have an ability to determine what is their best choices for themselves is an important piece of that as well.

What is your mission for the end of today?

I think the end goal today is to raise awareness around family homelessness, but also to inspire people to have a conversation past today. For the next 365 days until we do this again, it’s about really acknowledging that there are systems at play that we must be aware of and recognize every single day, and break down some of those barriers so that folks aren’t trapped in this cycle.

What are you planning on doing with the fundraised money?

The money goes to support our programs at My Aunt’s Place, which is the only homeless shelter for…women and children in the city of Regina. It supports our outreach team that does lots of work around diversion services. It helps women pay for arrears so that they can get a new housing. It helps them supply the furniture that they need when they move into new housing. So, there’s a whole smattering of supports the money that’s raised today will help.

Why is the event called “The Coldest Night of the Year?”

“The Coldest Night of the Year” is actually a nationally branded event. So there are people walking today, at this time across Canada, that are walking to bring awareness around homelessness across the country. The name itself comes from that nationally branded program, and we are an affiliate of it. We did not choose the name itself, but I think it comes from a place of really recognizing the struggles that one would have to face being homeless, and particularly in the winter in Saskatchewan.

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