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“UNSHELTERED”: the zine shares the experiences of unhoused women and gender diverse folks

Homelessness across Canada became more widespread and visible during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, visible homelessness mostly describes homeless men. For unhoused women and gender-diverse folks, homelessness remains a largely hidden issue. With a lack of safe, adequate and appropriate shelters dedicated to these folks, they are more likely to avoid shelters, couch surf and remain in unsafe and/or abusive situations to access shelter. 

Witnessing this unfortunate reality has inspired Samm Floren, a student in McMaster University’s post-degree bachelor of social work program, to bring to the limelight the experiences of homeless women and gender-diverse folks through the launch of her community project, “UNSHELTERED”: the zine. UNSHELTERED is a community art project aimed to sharing the stories of chronically unhoused women and gender-diverse folks who don’t access the shelter system in Hamilton for reasons including, but not limited to, restrictive service and shelter rules, being labelled as Do Not Admit or fear of discharge due to their mental health crisis, substance use or possession of harm reduction gear. 

The zine’s goals are to instill creativity, provide a safe space for unhoused folks to voice experiences and raise public and institutional awareness of what it is like to live outside of the Hamilton shelter system. The first issue of the zine can be accessed through a Google Drive link and a physical printed copy can be found at Centre[3], Girl on the Wing, Handknit Yarn Studio and Partizanka Press, or requested via UNSHELTERED’s Instagram page on a pay-as-you-can basis.

To gather contributors, Floren, along with two other social work students, Stephanie Milliken and Alannah Maye, would reach out to those sleeping on the streets or living in encampments who were accessing drop-in spaces and programs at the YMCA and Mission Services in Hamilton. Mission Services has been especially helpful in providing her with contacts to folks with a history of being denied or unable to access shelters.

Those who agreed to contribute their artwork to the zine were provided a consent form and asked to express their experiences of being unhoused in Hamilton. After finishing their pieces, they were interviewed to describe what their pieces are about and to share their story. Their descriptions and experiences were included in the zine along with their artwork. All participating folks were remunerated with an honorarium consisting of a $30 gift card to Dollarama or Tim Hortons, art supplies and harm reduction kits. 

The idea for the zine came about while Floren was working as a frontline shelter worker at a low-barrier program during January and February of this year. Seeing folks who were constantly being denied access to adequate housing, reading about homeless encampments, working the shelter system and not seeing any changes made to better support unhoused women and gender diverse folks motivated her to create a platform through which they could tell their stories to the larger community.

“[Folks] would become so frustrated and a lot of the time what they would say is, ‘I’m going to die out here on the streets.’ So that’s where the inspiration came from. But I think it’s important to note that folks have been telling their stories this entire time and UNSHELTERED is just a tool to do that,” explained Floren.

“[Folks] would become so frustrated and a lot of the time what they would say is, ‘I’m going to die out here on the streets.’ So that’s where the inspiration came from. But I think it’s important to note that folks have been telling their stories this entire time and UNSHELTERED is just a tool to do that.”

Samm Floren, founder of UNSHELTERED

UNSHELTERED was also inspired by Floren’s love for art and her belief in the capacity of art to act as an outlet for self-expression. She had run an arts session a few years ago as part of the Transitional Living Program at the YMCA for unhoused folks and seeing first-hand the fulfillment art could bring to them was one of her favourite moments in the program. 

“Just being there, being with folks and doing art, was just fun and I’ve carried that with me. The joy that people get from being able to just create is huge and I think that’s where a lot of [folk’s engagement with art] came from. We don’t have a lot of art supplies, it’s not something that people think of, but it’s something people love and cherish and use,” said Floren.

“Just being there, being with folks and doing art, was just fun and I’ve carried that with me. The joy that people get from being able to just create is huge and I think that’s where a lot of [folk’s engagement with art] came from. We don’t have a lot of art supplies, it’s not something that people think of, but it’s something people love and cherish and use.”

Samm Floren, founder of UNSHELTERED

The first issue of the zine included works from over 20 contributors, but it would not have been possible without strong community support. UNSHELTERED received monetary and supply donations from the community and organizations and lots of help from volunteers and partnerships. McMaster faculty and teaching assistants who were involved include Laurie Sherry-Kirk, Mary Vaccaro, Jennie Vengris and Jennifer Crowson. It was featured on the McMaster Social Work website and professors have been reacting positively to the zine by helping to spread the word and donating gift cards for honoraria. 

Supporting organizations of the zine include Keeping Six, Mission Services, YMCA Transitional Living Program and Carole Anne’s Place and CUPE3906. Keeping Six in particular has been a major supporter of the initiative through inviting UNSHELTERED to the Unity Jam concert, which occurred in September. There, Floren was able to promote the zine and host harm reduction information sessions and naloxone training. 

So far, Floren’s favourite responses have been from folks who contributed their artworks to the zine. She says it was exciting to see them receive a physical copy of the issue and react with so much positivity.

“I’m still tracking down a few people to give a hard copy of the zine and they were really excited — that was the biggest impact and that’s the goal. We want people to be excited and see other folks read it. So the feedback’s been pretty positive,” said Floren. 

Floren wishes for UNSHELTERED to become a long-term initiative while staying true to sharing the stories and artwork of folks who are living outside the Hamilton shelter system. Additionally, she hopes she can organize more art drop-in sessions.

“The goal of UNSHELTERED is the artists and the people who are sharing their story. It’s amazing that it has support, but that’s where the focus needs to stay. What’s important is that UNSHELTERED is just a tool. It’s another way to get things out there and what people need to realize when they read it is that these stories have been there this entire time. Hopefully now they’ll be more willing to open their ears to it and listen if they weren’t before and make an effort to continue to do that,” said Floren.

Here’s hoping that UNSHELTERED is able to not only support those living outside the Hamilton shelter system, but also effect larger, more permanent change in the city and in relation to people’s perceptions of unhoused individuals.

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