Living

Gimme shelter

Even before the economic downturn, more than three and a half million Canadians were living in poverty, and a growing number were unable to find safe, affordable places to live. In Saskatoon's tough housing market, the problem is truly dire - and homeless families are some of the hardest hit. Here's how one woman is changing that

Marla Hartman
Age: 40
Home: Saskatoon

How she gives back: The wife and mother is a former counsellor at the YWCA Crisis Shelter; a part-time student at the University of Regina; a pastoral associate at her local Catholic Church; a support worker for the Saskatoon Police Victims Services Unit; and a founding board member of the Saskatoon Overnight Shelter (SOS). Hartman has more commitments than she has shoes.

Why she cares: With house prices that rose a staggering 51.4 percent in 2007 and rents up as much as 13 percent, many families in Saskatoon are falling through the cracks. That year, Hartman says, the YWCA had to turn away 10 to 20 people a day. More start­ling, one survey found that almost half of the people staying at homeless shelters in Saskatoon are employed, many full-time, but still can’t afford a place to live. A big problem facing parents is that sex-specific homeless shelters separate fathers from daughters and wives, and sons from their mothers. “This is really disconcerting for me because I’m a mom with three boys and [if I were in that situation], the two older ones would have to stay at a men’s shelter with their father.”

Her eureka moment: “Last summer, a co-worker and I had to turn away a dad with his young daughter because there was absolutely no place where they could stay together. He didn’t want to put his child in foster care so that he could stay at the Salvation Army. He said, ‘There’s no need for my kid to go into foster care. I’m a good dad and I want to provide for her.’ What kind of situation is that, where through no fault of their own, families have to separate?”

Her solution: Hartman and the SOS board want to add 40 beds to emergency services – a 20-percent jump in available beds in the city – with showers, and access to professional counsellors. But most important of all: “We want to make sure families can stay together.” Last fall, a fundraising campaign kicked into high gear; their goal is to open the doors of a family-focused, non-segregated homeless shelter this year.
Back to the books: “I had this goal [to become a social worker] when I first got out of high school, but then I found the love of my life and chose to get married and start a family and took a 20-year mat leave,” she says. Three years ago, Hartman rediscovered her dream. “Right now I’m a part-time university student, working on my bachelor of social work.”

The balancing act: “My goal and the goal of everyone on the board is to get this shelter open and to maintain our personal lives at the same time. I’m blessed that my husband and kids
get it.”

If she can do it, anyone can: “I am probably not the best person to be leading this. I was a stay-at-home mom, not a businessperson, and I’ve had a huge learning curve. I never really thought in my life that I would be able to phone the premier’s office and have him call me back. Not in a million years. I was just happy to drive my kids to school and read about people like that.”