Making the invisible visible: How a star in the YWCA Hamilton lobby honours lives lost and highlights systemic injustice

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If you’ve passed by our MacNab Street location recently, you may have noticed a star hanging in our front window.

This star is an important symbol for us here at YWCA Hamilton. When it is lit, it represents the loss of a person who experienced homelessness or housing precarity and who accessed one of our women’s housing programs. Each time someone dies, the star will be lit for seven days.

The star serves as a signal to the community that our staff and patrons are grieving; that this person’s life was valued; that they were deserving of commemoration and recognition; and that there is one more star in the sky.

However, it also acts as a reminder and a call to action to combat the deep, systemic injustices that women and non-binary people experiencing homelessness continue to face – and particularly the fact that women’s homelessness is often invisible.

According to the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH), women and non-binary people are less likely to appear in mainstream shelters, drop in spaces, public spaces, or access other homeless-specific services. Instead, they are more likely to rely on precarious housing or to rely on dangerous supports rather than sleep rough on the streets.

CAEH points out that there is no national definition of homelessness that is inclusive of how women and gender diverse people experience homelessness. For example, there are no adequate systems in place that account for women fleeing gender-based violence, women trapped in situations of sex trafficking, those who live in overcrowded apartments or rely on couch surfing, or those staying in unsafe or exploitive situations.

This means that that we are greatly underestimating – and failing to respond to – the immense number of women who are homeless in Canada.

A good example of how women’s homelessness and housing precarity tends to be underestimated or made invisible is a program called the Point in Time count. Used by many cities – including Hamilton – the Point in Time count is intended to act as a snapshot of homelessness. A Point in Time count can include methods like taking an inventory of occupancy rates in shelters, and using volunteers and service providers in the community to literally count the number of individuals who are homeless in a certain area.

However, Point in Time counts often focus on measuring street homelessness, which tends to be more male-dominated. As a result, it fails to recognize how gender impacts women’s experience of homelessness. That means that governments and service providers are left to create policies and programming – and allocate funding – without truly understanding the scope and breadth of the need.

This is especially disconcerting given the sharp increase in the women and non-binary people who have accessed YWCA Hamilton’s housing services since the beginning of the pandemic. Our overnight drop in centre serving women who are experiencing homelessness, Carole Anne’s Place, has experienced a 150 per cent increase in usage, and we are seeing roughly 20 new women use Carole Anne’s Place every month.

We hope that the star in our front window acts as a beacon in our community that shines a light on both the individual we’ve lost, and highlights the continued need to support and remember the most invisible, marginalized members of our society.

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