As Mission Services of London as whole celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2021, another anniversary bears notice as well. Rotholme Family Shelter was created in 1986 as the Women’s Mission for single women, later merging with the Family Centre to form a single shelter for parents with children.
35 years later, the shelter is the only one of its kind within a 1.5 hour drive of London, allowing families to stay together as they receive help. Last year, 96% of families who accepted support from the Prevention of Homelessness Among Families (PHAF) program, were able to stay in their housing or find new housing without ever needing a shelter stay. The evolution of the Rotholme branch and roles of its workers has reflected the changing needs of families throughout the years.
Family First: 1951-1986
“I’m proud of how far the program has come,” Gail McCall, former Branch Director, notes. “We became so much more professional.”
Gail began working at the Women’s Mission in 1967. One of three staff members, they alternated shifts working days, evenings and weekends to help women staying at the shelter. Residents took responsibility for housekeeping duties and the occasional presence of children made the shelter feel like a home.
“It was a family atmosphere. It seemed to us we could keep that family atmosphere even as we grew,” Gail recalls.
The focus of the programs was on so-called Family Work. With assistance from local members of the Women’s Auxiliary to Mission Services of London (WA), Women’s Mission provided a combination of emergency services, including food, clothing and furniture, as well as emergency shelter.
As the demand for services increased, the shelter quickly outgrew the 3 storey, 17 bed facility on Clarence Street. After several temporary relocations, two homes on Stanley Street were purchased in 1978. It took several years for funds to be raised and renovations to be completed; in 1984, the newly combined property became home to the Family Centre and Women’s Mission. Although the programs shared a building, they remained separate operations with distinct facilities.
In a letter to the Board of Directors, the Branch Director of the Family Centre, Beryl Wilsher, wrote “After 12 years of working in broken-down buildings, I feel as though we’re at last a legitimate branch of Mission Services of London. I don’t feel like the poor relation anymore.”
“Little by little, things got much more modern,” Gail says. “We got a lot more respected by the community.”
Balancing Needs: 1986-2005
Shelley Stewart would later become program supervisor at Rotholme Family Shelter. When the two branches amalgamated in 1986, new challenges arose. Finding staff who could understand the nuances of family-centred care was difficult.
“There are subtle differences between the care for a single woman and the care for a family,” she explains. “Children’s needs are complex. You need to consider things like neighbourhood, proximity to busy streets, school districts when you’re placing a family into a home. Families often have higher debt loads because they have vehicle payments and more expenses. It can be harder to find them housing [rather than for] a single woman.”
“As we expanded and took on more families, we needed to hire more staff. We needed people who understood the unique needs and dynamics of a family unit,” Shelley says. As the social work field became more competitive, relief staff would often work several jobs while also attending school. As a result, staffing turnover was significant.
“We tried to find staff who were diverse, who had different educational backgrounds and some with lived experience,” says Shelley. “But it’s so difficult to find staff with lived experience of family homelessness.”
That wasn’t the only change Shelley saw during her career. In her early days, the emphasis was on providing life skills and outreach support to families during their stay at Rotholme. Shelley remembers offering group and individual programming on parenting, substance abuse, mental illness and other issues affecting participants.
“We used to work with families to stabilize them before finding housing,” Shelley says. “Now the focus is on finding housing first and then connecting families with social supports while housed so they can maintain that housing.”
Changing Demographics: 2005-present
Rotholme saw a rise in occupancy as refugees and newcomers to Canada sought help getting settled. Shelley saw more and more non-English speaking participants who needed additional support accessing social resources.
“When I left in 2018, two-thirds of residents [at Rotholme] were new Canadians,” Shelley says.
“It introduced a new dimension to how we care for families,” she explains. “We needed to work with interpreters, become more involved in landlord negotiations, introduce families to Canadian culture, and learn immigration law.”
Rotholme workers have also found a need for more advocacy work. Shelley describes efforts to educate both government and the community about issues relating to family homelessness.
“I wish people knew the complexity around poverty,” she says. “It’s not simple. Every situation is unique and how each family got here is unique. Often, it’s not their fault. What people need to understand is most of us are only a paycheque or two away from losing housing.”
“And once you stop paying rent and being able to feed your children, a whole lot more problems arise quickly. When things begin to unravel, they unravel quickly.”
The introduction of the PHAF program in 2015 enabled Rotholme workers to connect with at-risk families to help avoid emergency shelter altogether, by either maintaining current housing or finding an appropriate alternative quickly. For families who cannot be diverted from emergency shelter, a dedicated Housing Selection Worker helps find housing to fit their specific needs. Housing Stability Workers can then provide supports and life skills coaching to help families in the communities where they are living, and to help prevent homelessness in the future.
Legacy of Connection
One thing at Rotholme never changed over the years: the connection between staff and participants.
“I’m proud of the friendships I still have,” says Gail. With obvious pride in her voice, she tells of one particular young resident. “I’ve been able to see the changes she’s made in her life.”
Shelley agrees. “Some situations would be really traumatic. Through our support and crisis intervention, it was nice to see families get back on their feet and move forward. For me, the trust built with families was really rewarding.”