A Seneca student navigates the rental crisis while living with schizophrenia

Nisha Panchal sitting in The Hive at Seneca College

As rental prices go up, so do the number of people seeking shelters. Housing insecurities are further complicated by compounding issues such as mental illnesses.

Nisha Panchal rents a room for $700 per month. She wants to rent a one-bedroom apartment, but the average cost is more than double the $1200 she gets per month from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

“No landlord is going to accept you for $550 nowadays,” says Panchal. Michael Lyster, Manager of Development at Homes First, echoes the concern that ODSP provides rental assistance under the minimum asking price of a rental room.

Shelter Expert says More Affordable Housing is ‘Deeply’ Needed

Lyster standing in a kitchen
Michael Lyster at Spadina 224, a supportive housing site run by Homes First

“There hasn’t been large scale, subsidized housing built in quite some time. That would address one part of this conversation, that is affordable housing, which is needed for families and working people, seniors and people on limited incomes,” says Lyster.

Subsidies for rent refers to financial support from the government like the one Panchal gets from ODSP. Lyster says, without affordable and permanent housing available for shelter seekers, subsidies aren’t enough. Also, if someone doesn’t know how to access their subsidies, that leaves them vulnerable to homelessness. For example, Canadians newly becoming senior citizens can experience a difficult transition that leaves them vulnerable to homelessness as certain steps must be adhered to receive pension.

“A small percentage of seniors who don’t have support, like no family support, maybe they have a mental health issue, they’re socially isolated,” says Lyster, “they can get evicted, and they end up in shelters.”

Then, there are those who have been in the shelter system for long and struggle to live on their own and thus need housing support. Chronic homelessness is defined as someone using shelter facilities for over six months. With little to no income, increasing rental prices only exacerbates the pressure on shelter systems and the need for more public housing.

An Increasing Disparity Between Private and Public Housing Costs Leaves More People Seeking Shelters

People are dying on the waitlist for shelters. There are currently 85,464 people on the waitlist for social housing. The number of shelter residents dying per year has increased since the City of Toronto first started recording this information in 2007.

According to this figure, there was an increased acceleration of shelter resident deaths starting in 2018. This data coincides with the drastic increase in rental prices from just before quarantine and up to our present day, as seen in the next figure.

As rental and housing prices increase, a greater gap is formed between private and public housing. As more private housing gets built, the concern for more affordable public housing remains.

“They need this deeply, affordable housing, which needs to be built basically by the government and that hasn’t been happening,” said Lyster.

Increasing one’s income can be difficult with other compounding concerns like unsupported mental health illnesses. Populations that are particularly vulnerable to homelessness include those with unsupported mental illnesses.

After being diagnosed with Schizophrenia, Panchal says she struggled to find good housing and complete her studies at Seneca college. That is until she found the right medication. She hopes other people with this diagnosis won’t have to wait as long as she did to find the right medication.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of Canadians living with Schizophrenia has increased by 3% per year, since 2002.

Schizophrenia is a ‘spectrum’ disorder

The complexity of this diagnosis is due to the fact that there are variations in the type and severity of symptoms. A psychotic disorder can affect how a person interacts with and understands the world. The types of symptoms involved in schizophrenia include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech and/or behaviour, and impaired cognitive ability. This is a complex disease that can have variable forms of expression, and even variable responses to treatment.

The causes of schizophrenia are unknown, but it is believed to be a combination of factors including genetics, environment, lifestyle, and how the brain develops. Evidence suggests that schizophrenia is a brain disease, with individuals experiencing up to 25% less volume of gray matter in their brains. This is particularly impactful in parts of the brain used for coordinating thoughts and judgement, such as the temporal and frontal lobe. Currently, there is no cure for this illness, but medication and programs exist that help manage the symptoms so that people can function in society with support.

Public stigma regarding the illness must also be reduced. For example, it is important to note that schizophrenia is not caused by bad parenting, not associated with violence or aggressive tendencies, and it doesn’t mean one can’t make decisions about their own treatment.

According to national data, one percent of Canadians over the age of 10 years old, live with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. With the increasing prevalence of this psychotic disorder, public education and awareness is needed to remove stigmas.

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