There is a familiar pitter-patter of two-year-old feet as Maliek Murchison-Willie runs across the carpeted hotel floor to the window, disappearing behind the curtains. His twin brother is still napping, sprawled across an unmade bed, once crisp white sheets twisted and piled. Baby Isabella sleeps silently through the toddler babble in a portable playpen on the other side of the room.
“I feel like a bad mom,” said McKayla Murchison, peeling a banana for Maliek. “I feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing for my kids.”
The 27-year-old wears red track pants and a cropped white tank pulled from a plastic storage bin in the corner of the room, her blond hair piled on her head. She’s tired, having lived in a central Hamilton hotel for more than a month after she was forced to leave her Mountain apartment in April after the owners sold the house.
A jobless single mother of three kids, more than 200 landlords have passed her over.
Did Murchison ever think she’d be homeless? “Not in a million years.”
Her situation is common, local experts say. Many Hamilton families are experiencing homelessness for the first time amid a housing crisis and a steep rise in cost of living.
Murchison’s is one of about 40 families living in city-funded “overflow shelter spaces” at a central Hamilton hotel waiting for a spot in the 20-family shelter, said Grace Baldwin, a director at Good Shepherd, whose mobile case managers provide them support.
“Family shelter spaces are quite few and far between,” she said. “There are really not enough to meet the number of families that are experiencing homelessness in our community.”
The Good Shepherd turns away 60 to 90 families a month, said Baldwin, who oversees the organization’s emergency shelter for families.
Women’s shelters, in particular, have reached a “pressure point,” said YWCA CEO Medora Uppal.
“They’re using every inch of space to bring people in temporarily so that they have somewhere to go,” she said.
Homelessness among women and children tends to be less visible, Uppal said. That worries her.
“Because we don’t see children living in encampments, sometimes we forget,” she said.
Families are also staying in the shelter longer — an average of 106 days at Good Shepherd — likely a symptom of the housing crisis. The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Hamilton surpassed $2,300 in May. Record-high rates can pose a “significant barrier” to folks — many of whom rely on social assistance — trying to break the cycle of poverty, she said.
Even though the room is free, Murchison said hotel life is expensive. With neither a kitchen nor transportation, she buys meals at $15 to $20 a piece from the hotel restaurant and has groceries delivered. She’s doing her best, but knows hotel-room meals aren’t as nutritious as those cooked at home.
“When (the kids) go to my parents’ house, they head straight for the kitchen because they know all the good stuff is there,” she said, adding that mom and dad do what they can to help.
She’s also paying hundreds a month to store their stuff, money that could otherwise be put toward rent.
Malakhi, meanwhile, has woken up and helped himself to a container of star-shaped puffed snacks from the TV cabinet doubling as a pantry and toy bin and, lolling on the floor, dumps it on his face. The bar fridge is full of whatever fits — milk, yogurt drinks, jam, fruit. The desk in the room is for bulk snacks like cereal, granola bars, fruit cups and pudding. Beside them, she warms a bottle in a bath of coffee-pot water.
If there’s a saving grace, it’s that all three of her kids sleep through the night in the close quarters.
“They don’t wake up screaming,” Murchison said. Everyone, including mom, is usually asleep by 9 p.m. latest.
Now both awake, wearing matching red Paw Patrol T-shirts and pull-ups, the twins are settled each in a messy bed. They share interests, but are “yin and yang,” their mother says. Maliek, the extrovert, lies on his stomach gripping a tablet, while his brother, Malakhi, leans back against a pillow with a post-nap bottle.
At nearly two and a half, they’re nonverbal and were recently diagnosed with autism.
“I want my kids to be able to thrive and be successful, and they can’t here,” she said.
She’s got money in the bank, social assistance income, rental history, a willing co-signer and a two-bedroom budget over $2,000. Yet, after striking out hundreds of times, Murchison has all but given up on securing housing in Hamilton. She’s also signed up for subsidized city housing, which has a years-long waiting list.
“I want to cry so bad,” she said of the desperation that sets in when she thinks of all the rejections. But she avoids tears for her kids and for herself.
“If I start crying, it’s just going to be more difficult for me,” she said. “I have to be strong for them and I have to be strong because I have to stay focused. I can’t give up.”
Even those who can afford to rent may face a rigorous application process and intense competition. Good Shepherd clients have also reported being discriminated against in the application process — “being told ‘no’ by landlords just simply because of their income source or because of the fact that they’re homeless or because of the number of kids that they have,” Baldwin said.
“When landlords have a lot of applicants for (a) single apartment, and they’re comparing income levels and credit scores, sometimes our families are not being given those opportunities,” she said.
Though financial supports exist, women like Murchison are still viewed as a “liability,” Uppal explained.
“That’s how the system responds to her … instead of looking at her as somebody who needs support and investment,” she said.
Families deserve stable housing, Baldwin said, adding that they are likely to be responsible, long-term tenants.
“They don’t want to move around a lot because they want to provide roots and stability for their children,” she said.
Housing is a “foundation for … success,” she said, and landlords have the power to help families “get back onto their feet.”
Stable housing, child care and employment are ‘interrelated’
For many families, child care is a sticking point.
“Everything is interrelated,” longtime advocate Judith Bishop explained.
“You can’t get housing if you haven’t got an income, you need child care to be able to get an income,” Bishop said. “What I think is underestimated is how important child care is in reducing poverty.”
Quebec’s low-fee universal child-care program, now more than 20 years old, has had a “spectacular impact” on mothers’ labour force participation, an “effective insurance policy” against financial risks associated with separation from a partner, writes economist Pierre Fortin in a 2017 brief.
In March 2022, Ontario signed on to the Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care agreement, which commits to significantly reduced fees for families, thousands of new spaces and a wage floor for early-childhood educators.
As part of the new agreement, Hamilton is expected to get more than 1,500 new child-care spots by 2026. But in a chronically understaffed industry, experts wonder where the workers will come from. Some advocates say it’s likely to exacerbate the shortage, as lower fees are expected to further spur demand.
Amid the workforce “crisis,” many centres aren’t operating at capacity, said Carolyn Ferns, head of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care.
“If you’re a family that’s … privileged enough to already have secured a child-care space, you’re seeing your fees go down,” she said. “But for too many families, they can’t find a child-care space at all.”
Across the city, “huge” lists spurred by “pent up demand” are putting parents in difficult situations, Bishop said. In March, two large Hamilton agencies — that run about 60 centres combined — had 994 infants, 1,898 toddlers, 1,385 preschoolers and 776 kindergarteners for before- and after-school care on their lists.
After moving about 20 wait-list spots in two years, Murchison isn’t hopeful.
“I had called maybe two or three weeks ago and we’re still number 41 on the list,” she said.
Her twins have been on several wait lists since they were just weeks old.
Murchison is worried for her kids.
“They don’t speak, and a lot of that has to do with them not being around other kids,” she said. “They need to be placed in that social setting so they can start to learn how to talk.”
Studies show quality child care “reduces the need later for special-education services,” Bishop said, explaining that daily structure and social skills acquired at daycare are “extremely helpful” to development.
Murchison says she can make a decent living as a licensed nail technician but, without child care, she can’t work.
“I’m very hopeful that somebody will … want to give us a shot,” Murchison said. “My kids are the most important thing to me, and they need a stable environment.”