Helping women move out of shelters

  • December 18, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - It’s been three years since Lynne Fisher moved out of a shelter and into her own apartment.

The 49-year-old marital abuse survivor was on the brink of homelessness and credits the Independent Living Account program for helping her regain her independence.

The Social and Enterprise Development Innovations , or SEDI, started the $146,000 financial literacy program in 2005. It currently teaches shelter residents how to save money, pay bills and prepare to move out on their own. The program also offers a matched saving incentive of $3 for every $1 deposited into a savings account with TD Bank Financial Group. TD and the National Club of Toronto are donating the matched funds for the 61 residents in the program, each of whom can save a maximum of $400 and have those savings matched up to $1,200.

Fisher, one of its former participants, was a two-year resident of Langley House, a shelter run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Toronto for women recovering from addictions, when she enrolled in the financial literacy program. It’s currently running in two Toronto women’s shelters run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society: Amelie House and St. Clare’s Residence.

Fisher was one of an estimated 30,000-plus men, women and children who rely on Toronto’s shelters every year.

Three years ago, the first time the program was offered for Langley House residents, Fisher said she was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction but found support from her friends and her faith to get her through. She is now reunited with her two children, one of whom was under the care of Children’s Aid when Fisher moved into Langley House.

Fisher has also found full-time work as a family service and addictions support worker with the Salvation Army.

“I use my experience to help others when I can,” she told The Catholic Register.

Belinda Swaby, 24, a receptionist, said the program also helped her move out of the shelter system. Swaby was living with other street youth at Eva’s Phoenix shelter a few years ago. She said people who live in shelters have a difficult time getting the first and last month’s rent. The program helped her overcome this barrier, she said. She saved the money she earned from part-time jobs at cafés and a movie theatre to be able to rent her own place.

Swaby is this year’s SEDI Independent Living Award winner, an award Fisher won last year.

Louise Coutu, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Toronto, said about 80 per cent of participants during the pilot program are still living in their own apartments.

According to SEDI, 57 per cent of the 110 participants in Toronto and Fredericton, N.B., three years ago who opened bank accounts moved out of the shelter system and 95 per cent of these people are still living on their own after eight to 15 months of leaving the project.

Although it’s not for everyone, Coutu said it helps those who have more stable  circumstances.

One of the program’s strengths is the matching dollars incentive which recognizes people’s dignity, she said, adding that “it’s not a complete handout. There’s a responsibility and commitment.”

In addition to helping people live on their own, the program is also part of a long-term anti-poverty strategy, said Barbara Gosse, SEDI’s director of asset-building initiatives.

“We see that poverty is not just about income. It’s also an issue of saving and building assets and having tools and support around you that you can draw on at different stages of your life,” she said.

The municipal government provides funding to the program through the two-year, $270-million national homelessness strategy which will end on March 31. National funding to prevent and reduce homelessness trickles down to different projects across Canada.

Supporters of the financial literacy program hope that funding will continue because they say the program is producing results.

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