The COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the destruction of encampments has brought inadequate shelter services to the forefront of public conversation. During the pandemic, I worked in a gender-specific low barrier drop-in program in Hamilton, Ontario.

I watched the news and wondered, whose stories were being told and who had yet to be consulted? I founded UNSHELTERED to address this gap by bringing the voices of people impacted by gender-based homelessness to the forefront of the conversation.

UNSHELTERED was created in collaboration with people experiencing gender-based homelessness who are underserved and restricted from accessing shelter services. These experiences are missing from the public discourse around the encampment crisis and gender-based housing and homelessness.

UNSHELTERED is a co-created Zine featuring artwork from 21 people living in gender-specific low-barrier drop-ins in Hamilton, Ontario. It’s focused on engaging participants who are unable to access traditional shelter space. This Zine provided a mixed media art drop-in space for participants to share their stories, experiences, and recommendations for social change. It runs solely on the power of community through donations, volunteers, and partnerships. Partners have provided support by donating art supplies/necessities, contributing to honorariums, and publishing print copies of the Zine.

UNSHELTERED published the first issue in September 2021 and has been distributed throughout the Hamilton community in electronic and hard-copy formats. It has a strong social media presence and is committed to raising awareness of the realities of gender-based homelessness and living outside of the emergency shelter system in Hamilton. The findings from UNSHELTERED are influencing local community-based advocacy and the development of new gender-specific low-barrier supportive housing.

Zine Making Workshops

All participants were invited to an art-making workshop – on-site in low-barrier gender-specific drop-in spaces and transitional living programs. Workshops invited participants to create an art piece and share a story about their experiences of being without shelter in Hamilton. UNSHELTERED provided several ways for participants to engage including providing individual art kits, facilitating art-based drop-in sessions and outreach in encampments.  Each participant received an honorarium, art supplies and self-care items including snacks, necessities, and toiletries. Participants contributed a mixed-media piece of ‘art’ and a narrative contribution to the Zine during art-based workshops.

Key Messages from "UNSHELTERED": the Zine

  • The shelter system is not accessible, especially related to mental health and actively using drugs.
    • As Chloe discusses in her piece, people are often “kicked out” of shelters because they experience “bad mental health or days”. There needs to be more mental health support in the shelter system because people deserve support rather than punishment.
  • Shelter spaces can offer positive experiences for many, which is why it is so important that they are accessible to everyone.
    • As this anonymous artist highlights in their piece, shelters are a space of connection, community and care. They offer the opportunity to celebrate the holidays with people who care about you. Access to shelter services is important - and long-term and permanent bans are unfair and unwarranted
  • Once you enter homelessness, it feels impossible to get out.
    • As “Robin” describes in her piece, being homeless is like being in a sticky spider web; every time you try to move you get stuck. Whether it’s trying to find a place to sleep or a washroom, there are always things getting in the way. It is these types of barriers that make finding housing so hard. After each obstacle you conquer, another one is waiting for you.
  • The emergency accommodations are not sufficient.
    • “Helen” was not the only participant to talk about the food in the shelter system. Limited food options mean if you have an allergy or dietary restriction, your food for the day could be limited to something as unnourishing as a granola bar. Other issues mentioned included staff entering rooms without notice, inability to lock your door, and no guests allowed policies.

What’s Next?

UNSHELTERED is planning to release a new issue in 2022 - and the Zine will focus on gender-specific approaches to harm reduction.

Participants involved in low-barrier gender-specific harm reduction services will be invited to explore the question, “What does gender-specific harm reduction look like to you?" and provide an answer through an art submission. Participants will play an active role in Zine curation and development, whenever possible.

Where to read “UNSHELTERED”: the Zine

If you wish to read the Zine, it is available here: UNSHELTERED the Zine: September 2021 Edition

Check out UNSHELTERED on Instagram @unshelteredthezine for updates

If you’d like more information, UNSHELTERED can be reached at: