Photo by jplenio on Pixabay

 

Four older women’s passages through the labyrinth of homelessness, converge in lived expertise as researchers

 

On an August morning in 2021, a group of researchers congregated in a boardroom in downtown Victoria. Its windows, stretching from floor to ceiling, were more capacious than those of the digital screens through which team members have glimpsed one another for over a year. Yet technology, and its attendant glitches, persisted in-person. Two still attended virtually, beamed up onto a wall after some fiddling with cords, laptops, projectors, and makeshift stands. Team members had faced bigger, less resolvable challenges with similar gumption over the course of the pandemic’s unrelenting uncertainty.

Over snacks, the team of women re-connected through everyday affairs turned extraordinary during the pandemic: sons and daughters, cats and dogs, aches and pains, the feat of dragging oneself out the front door. But even things that are commonplace, let alone the unprecedented consequences of COVID-19, are experienced very differently by group members. Among them today are Jessica and Tracy, women who never took for granted the essentials of day-to-day life, when they have fought to survive, day by day, on the streets, in shelters, on housing wait lists, in spaces that have denied their basic human needs. For over a year, they have shared their lived expertise as co-researchers in a University of Victoria project that aims to amplify the perspectives of older women who have experienced homelessness or housing insecurity.

In addition to the academic team, Jessica and Maria are normally joined by their fellow co-researchers, Celeste and Christy. Their absence today speaks to the time and energy that housing precarity demands of them, even after securing long-term dwellings. Between the four of them, they hold decades of experience with housing insecurity and over which layers of vulnerabilities, capabilities, and identities, have accreted. These dimensions of personhood fail to be captured under the label of “homelessness,” which reduces people, and the wealth of stories they carry, to what they do not have. And Jessica, Maria, Celeste, and Christy have a lot of knowledge to offer, not least to this study.

Until now, research meetings have primarily taken place on Zoom, which co-researchers access through iPads provided by the project. They adopted, and adapted to, the technology with the same mixture of perplexity and resolve that their academic counterparts had shown to the audio-visual setup in the boardroom. Today’s meeting began with a prolonged troubleshooting session, as on monthly Zoom calls. As on Zoom, Maria sported a ballcap befitting her down-to-earth candour, though today her colleagues could also appreciate her stylish denim ensemble to match.  As on Zoom, Jessica’s phone periodically, delightfully, emitted meows as ringtones. Though she was no longer framed by a galaxy background, Jessica still proffered a glimpse into the parallel, unseen universe of women who are underhoused.

When the discussion turned to survival strategies employed by these women, Jessica recalled girls sleeping with knives in shelters.

Maria chimed in, “I had a collection of knives.” Proudly, she added, “but the police have them now.”

***

Women navigate a paradoxical world that pegs its contradictions to the supposedly irrational female condition. Women are excluded from housing, labour, and welfare supports and exposed to systemic exploitation, abuse, and violence. They are alienated from public policies and private markets, as well as from public life and private space. Behind closed doors, their unpaid labour, unseen trauma, and precarious circumstances are invisible; beyond them, their bodies, perceived faults, and vulnerabilities are hyper-visible. They are expected to be caregivers and homemakers, yet denied care and homes for themselves. They are disproportionately vulnerable to homelessness, yet rarely acknowledged as such.

In older women especially, social disadvantages build up over time until a point of rupture, often manifesting as loss of housing. The full force of such trauma is borne by the individual, who finds little recourse in the institutions that have invisibly shaped their circumstances and blamed them for these deprivations. People are held responsible for perceived personal shortcomings – substance use, lifestyle choices, poor tenancy, unemployment, lack of discipline, while governments evade accountability for their root causes – housing unaffordability, inadequate social supports, wage disparities, caregiving responsibilities, discrimination.

Gender-based inequities are partially evinced by numbers; after all, women are always required to bear the burden of proof. In 2016, 27% of lone-parent households led by women lived in core housing need, compared with 16% of those led by men.[i] Yet 68% of emergency shelters beds are co-ed or dedicated to men, compared with 13% dedicated to women.[ii]

The shelter system exists separately from services responding to violence against women (VAW), a sector that is even more overwhelmed and underfunded. On an average day, VAW shelters across Canada turn away almost 1,000 women and children daily. Even among women who are able to access a VAW shelter, of which 78% are short-term, one in five return to their abusers.[iii] Oftentimes, that is their only choice in the absence of suitable long-term housing and the surfeit of systems barriers, including prohibitive eligibility, paperwork, and rules.

While striking, these figures still vastly underestimate the magnitude of homelessness among women. That is because women are more likely to rely on informal, relational supports, such as couch-surfing, as opposed to mainstream services where they rarely feel comfortable – and where data is typically derived. National statistics, for instance, recognize neither VAW shelter use nor women’s generally periodic, rather than chronic, experiences of being unhoused.[iv] Similarly, scoring systems that determine eligibility for housing, such as the Vulnerability Assessment Test (VAT) used by BC Housing, fail to account for circumstances of episodic homelessness, couch-surfing, cyclical violence, and dependence on abusers.[v] In data, as in society, women are undervalued, under-represented, invisible.

Data happens to be what is coveted by policymakers, who then fail to prioritize the needs of people who are least visible and often, most vulnerable. Numbers are hardly objective or rational, nor are the institutions that appeal to these values, and demand them of the very people they displace and disorient. Statistics will not tell you that shelters, with their restrictions and rules, were demeaning environments for Maria, who found more agency living on the streets, with friends, and even with exploitative men. They will not tell you that Celeste alternately sought community on the streets, security with abusive partners, and sobriety in detox facilities – things that would have been unavailable to her in most shelters. Shelters are where Jessica routinely witnessed overdoses, could not get around in her walker, slept on floors, and was fed sugar-filled meals despite her diabetes. They are where Christy had been stolen from, propositioned, and fearful for her life.

These environments are not designed for older women, who rarely resemble the stereotype of homelessness that is engrained into the public imagination and public responses. Nor, for that matter, do older women fit narratives that confuse vulnerability for weakness, when it can also be a source of relational strength. Their overlooked needs, challenges, and hopes are conveyed not so much by numbers, but rather through stories. Four lifetime volumes are held by Jessica, Maria, Celeste, and Christy.

***

This month, Jessica had sixty cents left in her chequing account. It would mean accumulating debt on her housing, internet, and prescription bills. It would mean buying fewer blood sugar test strips, which she cannot afford to monitor four times a day as her doctor recommends. It would mean making a trip to the food bank, where she would not be given a choice of foods, much less ones that are suitable for her diabetic needs. As someone who uses a walker, she would need to wait until her support worker, Sharee, is available to take her there. Sharee was her lifeline when she took her to the hospital following several seizures, and more recently when the elevator in her housing complex broke down, trapping Jessica in her apartment for 11 days.

An elevator is unlikely to take 11 days to fix in market housing buildings, which Jessica cannot afford – not in a city where the median cost for a one-bedroom rental is $1600 per month.[vi] “[Welfare] budgets say you should only pay 30% of your income for housing; I say that doesn’t get you a garage in the city,” she said. Even in subsidized housing, Jessica spends more than 50% of her monthly work disability benefits ($1358) on housing that costs $825, which has increased to $942 due to back payments she owes. Her work disability benefits only partially cover her medical expenses of over $700 per month, much of which she pays out of pocket. Jessica also spent 14 years on a BC Housing waitlist, including five years being shuffled through shelters, before she could obtain this apartment. Very little adds up in the housing and homelessness sector.

Many housing facilities were prohibitive to Jessica, though the same could not be said about the cost of reducing their barriers to mobility (among many the many things they restrict). “All they need to do is put a ramp to some outside door and if it doesn’t have an elevator to put a chairlift in. They’re cheap,” she reckoned. “It’s really not an expensive thing to put in places and it would open up some of the older buildings and it would also allow women who have lived in those buildings for decades to be able to stay a bit longer.” Such is the inhumanity of “free market” capitalism, notwithstanding its irrationality of withholding cost-effective, if not cost-saving funding from long-term affordable housing that would reduce the need for emergency services. In Canada, the homelessness sector – industry, rather – costs seven billion per year.[vii] [viii]

Earlier this year, when Jessica was expecting to receive a tax refund, she was instead required to pay back thousands in income tax due to bureaucratic errors. When she turned 65 in June, she became eligible for Canada Pension Plan (CPP) payments, which couldn’t come soon enough. But first, she would need to replace her stolen BC Services card and contend with bureaucratic processes slowed even further by the pandemic – when social services are most urgently needed. Jessica would not begin receiving CPP for nearly three months. When the payment came through, she used it to pay $862 in back payments from Shaw in order to restore her Wi-Fi.

At the very least, she can now reap what she had contributed during her career with the government, which was cut short by a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. That was what “kick-started [her cycling] in and out of homelessness and vulnerability,” a pattern perpetuated by welfare and housing systems that have inadequately supported her. The irony is that after Jessica’s career working for the government, its policies, programs, and services did not respond in kind to her. After graduating with a Master’s degree in anthropology, which instilled Jessica’s interest in people, people did not see her humanity. “I don’t get company all that often you know,” she said. “Mind you people do think of you differently.”

In her years of work experience in fundraising, a career interrupted by health issues, Christy had managed multi-million-dollar budgets for many causes. Now, she struggled to secure meagre funds for herself – including CPP payments that she is entitled to, yet encumbered from receiving by the systems in place.

“I’ll say I want to apply for CPP where do I go? And they’ll say go here and then I go there and they say well we don’t do that – try this place. And then I try that. So I go to that place and they say well we can’t really help you with that but you can do it online. Have a nice day.”

Prior to that, she was twice denied disability assistance payments. Even with her administrative acumen and access to a laptop, Christy found the application processes for housing and social services to be overwhelming. “It’s not just the couple pieces of paper. It’s like you need this and that and this and that and you have to find and print it. It’s a lot. It’s really a lot,” she said. “The whole paperwork thing is daunting when you’re without a home and you’re trying to figure out how to maneuver.”

Christy “had to figure this out [her]self,” unable to find help when she needed it. When she didn’t, it was offered to her in patronizing ways, even with the best intentions of staff members. Many understood neither the machinery of housing and welfare systems, nor the diverse needs and identities of their clients. That is because the homelessness sector segments services and conflates people, often trapping them within instead of guiding them out. It enacts systemic barriers – paperwork, eligibility, and rules – in the context of structural inadequacies – a lack of affordable housing, limited and conditional funding to housing services, retracting and inequitable social policies – that place the burden of shame on “people asking for handouts.”

***

In Erin Dej’s book A Complex Exile: Homelessness and Social Exclusion in Canada, a “homeless-industrial complex” describes the dispensation of “sectors, institutions, public systems, community organizations, policies, practices, and funding structures designed to manage and maintain, rather than end, homelessness.”[ix] Over several decades of economic austerity, homelessness services have been increasingly constrained by funding limitations, program requirements, and government mandates, even as demand for these services has increased. This policy environment, often justified under “rational” auspices of standardization, accountability, and efficiency, has bred competition, fragmentation, rigidity, and ineffectiveness among service providers. Despite the best efforts of overwhelmed staff members, it is the clients who bear the consequences of inhumane housing conditions, insufficient support, impersonal care, and impossible paperwork.

Although people working in the sector hold a deep understanding of their clients’ social circumstances, homeless-serving organizations are limited in their capacity to address these structural conditions, including poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and multiple systems of oppression, including gender-based violence. Instead, responses to homelessness have focused on emergency services, such as shelters, and individual interventions, such as mental health and substance use treatments. While these resources are important, they can only provide support at critical stages downstream, inadvertently diverting attention from the root causes of homelessness.

Mental health and medical systems, for instance, often portray symptoms of structural inequity, such as trauma, to be personal deficiencies that individuals are responsible for overcoming. Amid structural constraints to personal autonomy, the homelessness-industrial complex constructs in its image the illusion of agency, a façade for blame that becomes internalized. Language of empowerment – “self-determination,” “self-discipline,” “self-care” – is frequently co-opted to this end – self-blame.

Celeste blamed herself for losing her children, her sobriety, then her home. In her initial days of homelessness, sleeping rough was a form of self-punishment she felt she “deserved to wake up cold and hungry” because she could not perform the manifold roles that society expects of women.

“I felt like such a bad person with my kids gone,” she confided. “I was still beating myself up off and on…I was such a bad mother. I was such a bad partner. I was such a bad cooker.”

Both the supposed transgression and its disproportional punishment were inflicted by forces far beyond Celeste’s control: the harrying hands of men, of governments, and of time, reaching back to childhood experiences of sexual abuse and residential school, back further still to centuries of colonial trauma, resounding through generations, uprooting Celeste from her ancestral lands. Celeste does not deserve to bear these multiple systems of oppression, but they had led her to believe that she “didn’t deserve housing.”

It was not until Celeste reached her nadir point that she was able to leave her abusive partner for supportive housing arranged by her brother. This was a watershed event in her recovery of self-worth, which began with an admission of vulnerability.

“I couldn’t do the streets. I was too old. I was too sore. I was too broken. I was realizing that I beat my body to shit you know,” she said, holding herself responsible for harms inflicted by other people and the institutions that failed to protect her. The cruelty of the homelessness-industrial complex is that it leaves people at “rock bottom,” mired in self-disgust, before they can begin to receive support.

Like Celeste, Maria sought help when she could no longer survive the streets. “I had to make a choice of whether I, plain and simple, wanted to live or die,” she said. Following detox from alcohol, she stayed with a friend to maintain sobriety, then stayed at a hospital for health complications. Only after then was she was able to access a housing subsidy for market housing. An unaffordable housing market is what drove Maria into homelessness in the first place, following separation from a partner. To meet rent, she entered co-habiting relationships with men that were sometimes beneficial, but more often exploitative, even abusive. This is how many women survive in a society that limits their financial freedom, but that passes judgement on their survival strategies.

Women in Canada make, on average, 69 cents for every dollar[1] made by men in the workforce,[x] while their work at home goes uncompensated and unrecognized, not least by social policies that fail to support both employment and caregiving work.[xi] By the time they reach old age, they are left with insufficient savings, pension income, and government assistance. Many have no choice but to enter either into homelessness, or into unsuitable or unsafe housing environments. Maria chose the former, at least until she could no longer. The streets offered her a degree of control she could find neither in market housing nor in shelter living.

“I’m far better off by myself,” she thought. “At least I know that I’m not having people that are gonna get me kicked out, people that are gonna steal from me or use and abuse me.” But she wishes she didn’t have to choose only between unacceptable living situations. “At least give them an option. If you give people choices rather than ultimatums, there’s a huge difference in outcome,” she said.

Christy quit alcohol when she could no longer endure living in a shelter. “I’d just had enough and needed to move on from that,” she said. “There’s such a feeling of despair in these shelters and I just didn’t want to be there.” She was then able to find a room of her own in a substance-free facility, before finding an apartment, but only after losing her mental well-being, self-esteem, and even her license to a DUI in her parked car. For Christy, the car represented her freedom, routines, and even a “safe space” away from the chaos of detox and the abuse from her roommate. After her roommate reported the DUI to the cops, Christy moved to a hotel, then to the shelter once her money, and options, ran out.

By the time Jessica found herself in the emergency room of St. Paul’s Hospital, with pneumonia and a concussion, she had gone without food for four days. During those nights, she stayed awake on the streets, and collecting bottles to save enough money to return to Canada with her two kitties. She had left Pender Island for Washington state in search of affordable housing, only to be robbed by someone she considered to be a friend, who had even “stolen the walker out from under [her].” With no place to stay, Jessica headed northwards, in the general direction of an elusive “home,” even as her condition deteriorated. “I wasn’t gonna last,” she said.

The hospital was the only place in the city with a bed for Jessica. With all shelters at full capacity in Vancouver, she offered a space in Victoria – on the condition that she give up her two cats. Jessica declined, for her cats were her “only family,” but she did not have a choice in the matter anyway. “They ordered this medi-van thing and hauled me out anyway because they said we’re gonna release you to the street otherwise,” she recalled.

Upon Jessica’s arrival in Victoria, shelter staff members tried to send her back to Vancouver because they could not accommodate her wheelchair. She was eventually taken to another shelter in the city, then to many others over the years, and to the emergency room twice more during this time. Our public systems fail to redress homelessness until a point of crisis, much less prevent it from happening, much less meet diverse needs for a “home.” Even after obtaining subsidized housing, Jessica continues to grapple with safety risks, health concerns, physical barriers, and no-pet policies in her building. She misses her cats every day.

Back on Pender Island, where Jessica would “go back in a flash if [she] could,” her cats could still make hazardous housing environments feel like a home. In one of these suites, she washed her clothes in the bathtub because the washer smelled like sewage. She wondered about how closely the pipes were built, about how the structures that sustain us are also the ones that sully.

***

The homelessness system collapses one’s sense of time, place, and self in order to impose its own (ir)rationalities. Perception becomes distorted in cycles through rentals, couches, detox facilities, shelters, and transition houses, as well as through the exploitation, abuse, and violence they encounter in these spaces. Instead of shortening the line to a home, the homelessness-industrial complex perpetually “keeps people in line,” literally and figuratively, by dislocating them from the world outside of it. Progression through these services, if at all, is convoluted in reality, yet linear in representation, a fictional trajectory from which deviance is penalized.

Rarely do women follow, for instance, the “housing continuum” from emergency or VAW shelters through to market housing.iv Instead, they typically cycle between their stages due to precarious household circumstances that are incompatible with housing services or rules, such as maximum stay durations or no-visitor policies.

Women are excluded, too, from the “Housing First” model, which is designed to rapidly secure long-term housing for people without requiring them to demonstrate “readiness” for housing[xii]. As a universal framework, Housing First rarely attends to diverse social groups with specific needs and vulnerabilities. It is notably inaccessible to domestic violence survivors, who are often unable to meet eligibility criteria that require 30 days of homelessness and do not recognize women staying in Violence Against Women shelters.[xiii] In terms of suitability, many women prefer congregational living arrangements over independent environments prioritized by Housing First.[xiv] Some may subvert the model entirely, preferring to meet other priorities, such as safety from domestic violence, mental health, substance use treatment, and child visitation requirements, before eventually entering permanent housing. Long-term affordable housing is crucial, but policymakers cannot put housing targets before human needs that should really come first.

Celeste may not remember dates, locations, and other information required in paperwork, but she sharply recalls the pain of losing her children, and of losing her housing, sobriety, and self-esteem to “off and on” abusive partners. Although she attended substance use programs “like clock-work – noon and night, noon and night, noon-night,” her process of healing was catalyzed not so much by disciplinary regimen, but rather by empathetic relationships. She credited her recovery to several personal advocates, including family and several peer support workers, who “accepted [her] for [her]” and “never gave up on [her].” From relationships that restored her self-regard, Celeste found the strength to leave her abuser, repair social connections, work on her addiction, and improve her health. Unlike popular tropes of rehabilitation, this process is ongoing rather than successive, a continuing testament to Celeste’s resilience.

Even after Celeste secured long-term housing, which she had been unable to access in circumstances of violence, she “worked [her] butt off to get it to be home.” For a sense of “home” is grounded in physical, emotional and social connections that transcend the surroundings of the individual in the present. A home contains our innermost thoughts and outward representations; personal and social histories; memories and dreams. Celeste’s home contains her aspirational and retrospective selves. “I have a lot to work on still and just not dying has made me realize that I’m able to do what I’m doing right now,” she observed. “When I’m doubting myself, I have to visualize things that I’ve conquered and not dying is one of them.” Of her former life, one that she continues to reckon with, Celeste reflected, “I lost so much time numbing myself.”

And so did Christy, amid the terror of shelter living, when alcohol, books, and knitting offered refuge where three cubicle walls and a shower curtain could not. The days and spaces were indistinguishable one from the next; she would prefer not to recall the details anyway. Still, as a detail-oriented person, driven by desperation at that point, she made two phone calls daily, for weeks, until she found an available bed at another shelter. When the opportunity finally arose, “it was like can you be here at 2:00? That’s how it works,” she lamented. Ultimately, it was her desire to leave the shelter that motivated her to stop drinking – not the detox facilities that she found to be at best patronizing, at worst frightening, much like the shelter.

“I had really believed that okay I’m gonna do detox. I’m gonna do rehab. I’m gonna come out. I’m gonna get a job. I’m gonna get an apartment and I’m gonna be good,” said Christy, in incredulous hindsight. “That’s what I thought would happen and it didn’t happen.”

Christy internalized that myth in the aftermath of surgery complications that led to substance use, unemployment, and loss of housing. What instead followed was two harrowing years cycling through detox, roommates, and shelters that initially exacerbated her alcohol use. In the midst of COVID-19, she was continually denied work opportunities on the basis of age, in spite of her abundant qualifications, which still could not prepare her for the involuntary full-time job of homelessness.

Even after accomplishing, incredibly, all the steps demanded of people seeking to exit homelessness – quitting alcohol, moving to a substance-free environment, filling out applications, landing a job, finding housing – Christy is still fighting for her humanity in systems that diminish it. Weeks after moving into an apartment, the presumed endpoint of homelessness, Christy could repose herself only on the floor or in a camper chair. Of course, this was no retreat. It would take prolonged negotiation with the ministry, non-profit housing agency, and furniture stores, all with contradictory criteria and instructions, just to obtain a bed. She had persisted in her request for a double bed, which was met with bureaucratic resistance, because “the thought of getting a single was just too similar to being homeless.” To Christy’s frustration, she was still deemed ineligible for a sofa, which came to symbolize her dignity, as did her car. “It’s not about a fucking couch,” she said. “It’s about creating a real home that you want to come home to, not just camping or making do.”

Christy would later apologize for her language, though there was nothing to apologize for, not least for unmet basic needs after which people are expected to beseech. (And I apologize to Christy for reproducing choice words; I could think of none more apropos.) “It is so frustrating to be continually encouraged to apply for this or that only to be told weeks or months later that you ‘do not rate’.” People and their circumstances are reduced to numbers, Christy being one of 100 people that an individual staff member at a service agency is trying to support at any given moment. On scoring systems used by these agencies, Christy’s case ranks as low in priority precisely because of her high capacity to survive independently, as someone who is now substance-free, employed, and at least on paper, housed. “I so lucked out,” she acknowledged, wondering, “what of others?” Yet merely surviving, in the absence of the basic amenities denied to Christy, is not to live fully in a home of one’s own.

Christy feels like an “anomaly,” at some points “not homeless enough” to be eligible for support; at others, “more than homeless,” despite doing everything in her power to move on. Despite doing everything to lift herself out of homelessness, as instructed by the jumble of housing, welfare, and detox services, only to have it prevent her from doing so. She reflected, “this is all surreal sometimes.”

This is the purgatory of the “homelessness-industrial complex,” which trades in social, rather than financial, capital for those who are excluded from housing markets. According to Dej’s book, it sells the promise of full social inclusion to people it continually positions as “Other,” perpetually redeemable in society but never, in the eyes of society, fully “redeemed” from a crime none other than social difference, disadvantage, or disenfranchisement. One can aspire only to be included among the excluded; many older women, such as Christy, remain excluded among the excluded. They feel alone, “anomalous,” invisible even to one another.

Embedded in the homelessness-industrial complex is a punitive welfare model that holds aid recipients to impossible, binding standards. On one hand, people are required to prove their “worthiness” of aid, contingent upon employment-seeking, substance use treatment, and other disciplinary indicators for perceived personal capacity. On the other, tied, hand, they must also demonstrate their incapacities through humiliating processes of means-testing, which often prioritizes circumstances of deprivation that are most visible. Those most visible happen to be middle-aged white men for whom housing policies, services, and triaging tools are primarily designed. Among the least visible are older women whose vulnerabilities, needs, and resiliencies are not only overlooked, but held against them on paper, in papers, and in society.

“The perception is that everyone has lived on the street and that is not true,” said Christy. Having trained and worked in the media industry for many years, she noted, “often media will glom onto whatever is sexy.”

“They assume you’re using drugs. They assume you could be in the sex trade,” revealed Jessica, “if [people] find out you spent time on the street.” When someone once characterized her that way, she shot back, “oh yes just every man’s fantasy the grandmother type leaning over her walker cause I can’t stand up straight.”

Jessica herself “[doesn’t] judge anybody’s activities,” having – in anthropological fashion – observed, understood, and befriended many sex workers and drug users during her time in shelters. But her needs differ vastly from theirs, which are also unmet in a system that conflates diverse people under one inadequate roof. What she wants people to know is that “there is a segment of the homeless population that doesn’t fit the stereotypical homeless image.” Jessica explained, “we’re the segment that policy people don’t even think about. Homelessness includes older women, who have medical complications just like everyone else.”

As happens with time in exile, the sequence of shelters in which Jessica spent five cumulative years may be blurred, inconsequential in its Sisyphean repetition. Vividly described, however, the humiliating routine of: waiting past 11 pm to sleep in a church atop a “gym mat that they sort of throw at you,” waking at 6 am to glaring gym lights, being required to leave within five minutes, during which time she had to carry her mat up a flight of stairs – with a walker that she was “living out of,” and shamed for using. “You’re supposed to take your mat up to the stage,” she recounted, “and [staff] would come up and say really? You really think you’re gonna get that up on top of this walker?” In their eyes, perhaps Jessica’s real incapacity was her inability to perform, onstage, the rituals of receiving goodwill for basic needs she ought to be entitled to.

“Nobody likes to be told what they’re gonna do or what they can and can’t do, what time to go to bed,” said Maria, referring to conditions attached to housing supports. When people are de-humanized, their human rights go unrecognized. “There’s no way that no one should have clothing or a roof over their head,” contended Maria. “We have enough of everything for everyone in this world to eat a meal, to have clean water; come on you can’t tell me that can’t happen.” Indeed, the prevalence of homelessness is not logical, but ideological, driven by the combined oppressive forces of capitalism, colonialism, ageism, and patriarchy.

Maria contended, “unfortunately we have our politics and we have our politicians and we have all of these other people making choices for us,” constraining personal choice even as they portray homelessness as one. She only chose the invisibility of the streets because her only other option, at the time, was the stigma of shelter living. The precarity of homelessness demands the constant re-invention of space, and of self. Maria survived sleeping rough with resourcefulness, hanging plastic and cardboard from blackberry bushes to shield herself from the elements and from eyesight. In late summers of years past, one might imagine her grasping at berries, entangled among thorns, which cut yet less deep than those of the shelter system. “It should just be a given that a single woman that is over 50 [should] have some kind of transition place where they could have their own little space until they can get housed,” Maria asserted.

***

Homelessness may be a political/policy choice, but it is not one that society is powerless over. Policies are neither immutable nor objective, but laden with values presided over by people. We can begin by changing those values, by empathizing with people who are underhoused and understanding their social circumstances; in short, caring about them. For Maria, Celeste, Christy, and Jessica, caring relationships provided vital reprieve from the unjust systems they navigated. Friends, family, support workers, and neighbours did for them what institutions could not: re-connect Tracy to herself and the social world; empower Celeste to leave and heal from abusive relationships; help Christy to move and assemble furniture; protect Jessica’s belongings and take her to the ER. It took immense personal strength for these four women to survive and return from “rock bottom” in a society that allowed them to fall through the cracks. Strengthening their safety net is a collective, rather than personal, responsibility.

It is the restoration of caring social relations, often enacted by women, that heals the immense isolation of homelessness. “Somebody that was actually nice would ask me something and I would break down. I finally started doing that and I found when I started doing that, I started getting help,” said Maria. “Nobody was put on this earth to fail and be left alone. There’s just no way.”

“I believe it was because I wasn’t left alone,” said Celeste, reflecting on breaking her cycle of abuse. “Every woman out there needs some form of support – some form of guidance, some form of help. I would say that in all truth, because we’re women we tend to have to prove ourselves harder out there.”

Following this implicit understanding, or even instinct, all four women have in turn extended care to other people. They do so despite having limited resources – or rather because of it, for they know, more than those whose basic needs are already met, that we all rely on others to survive at one point or another. Maria, Celeste, and Christy are peer support workers who have something that people who make decisions on their behalf lacking: lived expertise.

“Opening up” enabled Maria to receive support, and it would now allow her to support others by sharing her experiences. “If I can give some of the tools that I use then by all means that’s what I’m going to do because if it’s helped me obviously it works,” she said. “So why wouldn’t I want to share that with somebody else if they can use anything that I’ve given them?”

The relationship is also mutually enriching, conferring to Maria a sense of purpose that was eroded in homelessness. “It’s what makes me function and live with myself [when] I’ve seen improvements in people.”

Likewise, peer support work has helped Celeste to re-build her fractured self-regard. “Doing the peer support has given me an opportunity to work on myself,” she said. “I started feeling comfortable acknowledging my old self even though there was a lot to deal with.”

Christy is both pragmatic and empathetic, qualities that do not describe the homelessness-industrial complex. As a peer worker, she sees not only the disconnect between “systems that don’t talk to each other,” but also that between institutional goals and human needs. In one client’s experience that would foreshadow her own, she recalled, “We’ve moved somebody into a place and it doesn’t feel like home cause there’s no furniture. You don’t want to give them crappy furniture. You want to help him to have an environment that he’s comfortable in and yet it’s already been a couple of weeks since he’s moved out and so he’s flailing a bit.”

Housing units, insufficient as they were, are not enough to create a “home,” which is grounded in subjective physical, emotional, and social attachments.[xv] Requirements for a “home” are diverse, as are the people that seek them; their perspectives ought to be included in policies, research, practices, and communities designed to end, rather than perpetuate, housing precarity. According to Erin Dej, and many other researchers, people cannot leave behind homelessness, including its lingering feelings of alienation and stigma, until they achieve social inclusion. If the homelessness-industrial complex perpetuates social exclusion by blaming the individual, ending homelessness begins with recognizing the inhumanity of structural discrimination and the humanity of its survivors. These perceptions are mediated at the point of care, on a person-to-person basis. If we are to go beyond individual interventions to structural change, as advocated by Dej, we must bridge these domains through interpersonal relationships.

Women with lived experience are uniquely equipped to build relationships in leadership roles, for they already do so in everyday life. It is second nature to Maria, who shares a visceral connection with her peers. “You can’t really put your finger on it,” she said. “There’s a camaraderie or connection. A lot of times it’s something that is familiar or you feel comfortable enough to share because you’ve heard something that the person has said that you can relate to. That starts the conversation if they’re willing to listen.”

Maria, Celeste, Christy, and Jessica are unique individuals, with distinctive needs, but they share an awareness of what it means to be an outsider, a position from which they appreciate, rather than vilify, social difference. On her experience of housing instability, Jessica reflected, “I think it’s made more open to people. But in a lot of ways even with my anthropology I was pretty open to begin with.” With the discerning eye of an anthropologist, without the distortions of public perception, Jessica always sees the humanity of others around her, even in the bleakest of environments. “Everyone has a different story,” she said.

Ending homelessness demands sustained, structural responses from all levels of society. This work begins in the here and now, when we can hear and know the people who are underhoused and overlooked. They include older women, who are heroines of stories shaped by years of social disadvantage, human relationships, and personal endurance.

Here in the boardroom, Jessica relayed her doctor’s prognosis about her “impressively arthritic knee” with more self-satisfaction than self-pity. After all, the knee still takes her through “walker gridlock” on senior’s discount day every month at the pharmacy. Her audience was indeed impressed, just as they were with Maria’s “collection of knives.”

Just as heroic are accomplishments more mundane, like Maria’s account of getting dressed, leaving the house, going to the bus stop, and showing up in the present.

“Talk to us,” said Jessica. “You might find you have more in common with us than you think.”

 

<– GO BACK

———————–

[1] In annual earnings for both full-time and part-time workers in 2019

[i] Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. (2019). Core Housing Need Data — By the Numbers. Retrieved from https://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/professionals/housing-markets-data-and-research/housing-research/core-housing-need/core-housing-need-data-by-the-numbers

[ii] Employment and Social Development Canada. (2019). Everyone Counts 2018: Highlights – Preliminary Results from the Second Nationally Coordinated Point-in-Time Count of Homelessness in Canadian Communities. ESDC. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/homelessness/reports/highlights-2018-point-in-time-count.html

[iii] Statistics Canada. (2019). Canadian residential facilities for victims of abuse, 2017/2018. Statistics Canada Catalogue. Ottawa. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2019001/article/00007-eng.htm

[iv] Schwan, K., Versteegh, A., Perri, M., Caplan, R., Baig, K., Dej, E., Jenkinson, J., Brais, H., Eiboff, F., & Pahlevan Chaleshtari, T. (2020). The State of Women’s Housing Need & Homelessness in Canada. Hache, A., Nelson, A., Kratochvil, E., & Malenfant, J. (Eds). Toronto, ON: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press. https://womenshomelessness.ca/wp-content/uploads/State-of-Womens-Homelessness-Literature-Review.pdf

[v] Cronley, C. (2020). Invisible intersectionality in measuring vulnerability among individuals experiencing homelessness–critically appraising the VI-SPDAT. Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness, 1-11.

[vi] Chen, C. (2021, June 16). June 2021 Canadian Rent Report [Blog post]. https://blog.padmapper.com/canadian-rent-trends

[vii] Stephen Gaetz, Erin Dej, Tim Richter, & Melanie Redman (2016). The State of Homelessness in Canada 2016.

Toronto: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press. https://homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/SOHC16_final_20Oct2016.pdf

[viii] Latimer, E. A., Rabouin, D., Cao, Z., Ly, A., Powell, G., Aubry, T., … & At Home/Chez Soi Investigators. (2020). Cost-effectiveness of housing first with assertive community treatment: Results from the Canadian at Home/Chez Soi Trial. Psychiatric Services71(10), 1020-1030.

[ix] Dej, E.. (2020). A Complex Exile: Homelessness and Social Exclusion in Canada. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

[x] Statistics Canada. (2019). Table 11-10-0239-01 Income of individuals by age group, sex and income source, Canada, provinces and selected census metropolitan areas. https://doi.org/10.25318/1110023901-eng

[xi] Kershaw, P. (2005). Carefair: Rethinking the responsibilities and rights of citizenship. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.

[xii] Government of Canada. (2019). Housing First. https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/programs/homelessness/resources/housing-first.html

[xiii] Maki, K. (2017). Housing, Homelessness, and Violence Against Women: a Discussion Paper. Retrieved from
https ://www.homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/attachments/Housing%2C%20-Homelessness%2C%20and%20VAW%20Discussion-%20Paper%20Aug%202017.pdf

[xiv] Oudshoorn, A., Smith-Carrier, T., Hall, J., Forchuk, C., Befus, D., Caxaj, S., Ndayisenga, J. P., & Parsons, C. (2021). Understanding the principle of consumer choice in delivering housing first. Housing Studies, 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/02673037.2021.1912713

[xv] Cloutier, D., & Harvey, J. (2009). Home beyond the house: Experiences of place in an evolving retirement community. Journal of Environmental Psychology29(2), 246-255.

 

<– GO BACK

Photo by JacksonDavid on Pixabay

 

Maria is a natural protagonist and storyteller who “could write a bloody bestseller.”

In life and in narrative, Maria’s creativity shines through as she recounts her story of beating the odds of homelessness, and helping others do the same, through the analogy of a baseball game. In the many positions she has occupied on the field, she has never been a mere spectator.

“Unfortunately sometimes life throws you the curve ball and it’s either you play and you hit it or you just let it strike you out and I’ve always been a player, a team player,” she says.

 

Fielding vulnerability

It was the alignment of circumstance, determination, and above all, solidarity, that empowered Maria to hit back against, and flee, opposing forces of violence both interpersonal and structural. Such was her exercise of agency in a society that denies personal safety, social supports, and economic opportunities to women.

Maria’s pathway into homelessness began with the end of a relationship, which thrust her into an unaffordable housing market. To meet rent, she entered co-habiting relationships with men that were sometimes beneficial, but more often exploitative, even abusive.

“I’m far better off by myself and at least I know that I’m not having people that are gonna get me kicked out, people that are gonna steal from me or use and abuse me,” she asserts

Instead, she preferred sleeping rough, for which her strategies are a testament to her creative resourcefulness.

“I got plastic and I would hang it on the blackberry bushes and cardboard so that it would stop the wind from blowing through plus people being able to see me,” she recollects.

For Maria, the streets offered a modicum of control that she found in neither market housing, couch-surfing arrangements, nor shelters. She found shelter environments to be especially de-humanizing and disciplinary.

“People don’t like to be under any type of rule. Nobody does. Nobody likes to be told what they’re gonna do or what they can and can’t do, what time to go to bed, what time you gotta be… nobody likes that. I mean that’s just a given.”

 

An uneven playing field

The rules of the proverbial baseball game, it seems, are rigged against the batting (and often battered) players.

According to Maria, “there was always an obstacle being thrown and you didn’t realize what was coming out of left field and then all of a sudden you’re in a tailspin and before you know it you don’t even know how you got there.”

Such injustice is invisible because it is institutional, the penalties meted out from afar. But Maria pinpoints their source in upstream policies.

“It…boils down to…the government. I mean they’re not putting out enough money in the right places,” says Maria.

“A lot of people…never did want to be on the street but unfortunately through the course of events that happened whether it was losing your job which meant you couldn’t… whether you got EI and EI ran out and then you got nothing. If you get Ministry you still have not enough to live on. You definitely have not enough to rent a house for sure…They haven’t changed that rental portion in over 20 years.”

Older women disproportionately fall through the cracks of an inadequate social safety net due to their accumulation of economic disadvantages over the life course, spanning discrimination in the work force, assumption of caregiving responsibilities, diminished earnings potential, and financial dependency. Many are left with no choice but to enter into homelessness, and then to accept housing services, if at all available, that are not suited to their needs.

“It should just be a given that a single woman that is over 50 years old they have to have some kind of a transition place where they could be and have their own little space until such time as they can get housed,” contends Maria.

That these women are underhoused, she argues, is a political choice.

“There’s no way that no one should have clothing or a roof over their head for that matter. I mean we have enough of everything for everyone in this world to eat a meal, to have clean water, I mean come on you can’t tell me that can’t happen. It’s just unfortunately we have our politics and we have our politicians and we have all of these other people making choices for us and unfortunately some of them are not the right choices and in fact bad choices.”

The right to a dignified life, then, is constrained and realized by choice – something that has been denied to underhoused women.

“You know I mean at least give them an option. Give them a choice and again if you give people choices rather than…ultimatums, there’s a huge difference in the outcome,” she says.

Maria made the best of ultimatums handed to her in life because she could not afford to choose otherwise.

She asserts, “I had to make a choice of whether I plain and simple, whether I wanted to live or die, whether I wanted to fail or succeed, whether I wanted to be happy or sad or if I wanted to be angry or happy. You know what I mean like it’s all about choices and everyone has that power – everyone”

But that innate power is harnessed collectively, as Maria acknowledges.

“Nobody was put on this earth to fail and to be left alone. I mean there’s just no way.”

 

Going to bat for self and others

Maria did not choose to be homeless, but she chose to receive care from, and in turn provide it to, people who are not supported by unjust systems at large. Autonomy from these systems stems not from the dominant ideal of individualism, but rather from interdependence within relational networks traditionally enacted by women.

Maria’s journey out of homelessness began with an expression of vulnerability, which empowered her to re-build her life with the support of others. There is poetic symmetry in the kindness extended to Tracy by female figures, which counters the harms inflicted upon her by men. The women who played pivotal roles in her recovery include a friend who allowed her a place to stay clean following stabilization, and two workers who helped her to secure subsidized housing.

“I guess I was becoming vulnerable and I’ve never let people see that side of me because it was a sign of weakness,” she admits. “But the thing is that I started to show my emotions were coming out. I couldn’t control them. In other words there was somebody that was actually nice that would ask me something and I would break down. I finally started doing that and what I found out when I started doing that I started getting help.”

As a support worker at the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, Maria now helps others to find their inner strength by sharing the means by which she found her own.

“If I can give some of the tools that I use or share them then by all means that’s what I’m going to do because if it’s helped me I mean obviously it works. So why wouldn’t I want to share that with somebody else because if they can use anything that I’ve given them as in my own personal experience then that’s fine by me,” she says, “because you know once they see the results for themselves that to me gives them that boost like that self motivation, empowerment, self esteem, self-worth, the whole nine yards”

The self-regard that Maria speaks to is centered not so much around the individual, as in prevailing victim-blaming narratives, but rather one’s connections to the social world. Advancing nine yards to the next proverbial base is a team effort, one that is visceral to women with shared experiences.

“You can’t really put your finger on it. It’s just there’s a camaraderie or there’s just a connection… a lot of times it’s something that is familiar or you feel comfortable enough to share and because you’ve heard something that the person has said that you can relate to and that starts the conversation that’s if they’re willing to listen or if they have time or even want to,” she observes.

“The more I find the people that have started to open up and talk the further that they’re getting quite quickly.”

Their progress enriches and edifies Maria as well. The momentum is mutual, propelling forth care recipient and provider alike.

“It’s what makes me function and live with myself that you know that I’ve seen improvements in people,” she reflects.

“It seems like when I help other people and I see that things are getting better or positive in their lives going forward that to me it’s like I’ve achieved something.”

The act of caring, and being cared for, is what grounds Maria’s sense of self, of belonging, and of “home.”

“I hit a home run just about not quite. But you know like what I’m trying to say – I’ve gone from first base to third. It’s like I’m going forward and hopefully one day we’ll just get to the home plate,” she remarks.

Later, she reminisces, “I really was fortunate that the people stood up to the plate and helped me”.

Maria’s journey away from, then back to, a place of “home” is not necessarily rectilinear, but rather multi-faceted, a diamond in the rough. Its unfinished nature reflects the ongoing process of care – a commitment to which Maria has devoted her life.

“I still have the desire to be a functioning person in society, to be someone that might be able to make a difference to help people,” she maintains. “And if that’s what my lot in life is I say that’s great. It’s something I’m not gonna be able to do forever obviously because I’m gonna be on old age soon. But it’s helping somebody and it’s helping me as well. I’d say it’s a win-win all around.”

In a game stacked against their favour, women yet achieve win-wins, not least in the small victories. That is how they re-claim monumental space, however ordinary, for oneself and one another.

“People are now where they always walked and looked at the ground they’ve got their heads up and they’re smiling – things like that. Or they’re now coming up and wanting to have conversation where before you wouldn’t even get a good morning out of them. So it’s those kinds of things that just you can see that it’s done something. It’s helping.”

 

Not your spectator sport

To be homeless as a woman is to dodge private, invisible violence in public scrutiny, but not recognition. The margins of error are thin, the decisions split-second, and stakes life-threatening, demanding taken-for-granted feats of endurance. Their performance is judged by audience members who alternatively cheer and jeer from the shelter of the stands, or through screens in their own homes. Patrons tune in to see a feel-good story, perform righteous outrage, or even bet on players’ losses to gains in real estate – but not social – equity. Spectators come and go from the stadium of political theatre at will, even goodwill; but those on the field remain trapped, expendable to the public once exhausted of entertainment value.

The cost of admission into our extractive economic systems is invisibly borne by those who are denied access to them. Now that we have glimpsed the consequences for women who are underhoused, we can no longer afford to look on, much less gawk at them. Rather, our responsibility as a society is to bear witness to their existence, and the full range of choices and triumphs women may realize if given a fair shot. People like Maria have seen their potential all along.

“I do this because I’ve seen the failures and the successes and I have a lot of lived experience to share,” she said.

 

<– GO BACK

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay

 

In the spring of 2020, Jessica began working for a University of Victoria study that examines homelessness and housing insecurity in older women. In this role, she is a researcher who holds a rare combination of academic training, with a Master’s degree in anthropology, and lived experience of the topic of inquiry – obtained in that order. As an individual with disabilities who became homeless later in life, Jessica’s trajectory has not been one of upward mobility, figuratively and literally. Two decades ago, a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis ended Jessica’s career with the government and “kick-started [a cycle] in and out of homelessness and vulnerability.” 14 of these years were spent on the BC Housing registry waiting to be placed in a home that she can navigate in her walker. Stairs, it turns out, are only one of many physical, financial, social, and political barriers to appropriate housing for Jessica.

Given the challenges she has survived, one might say Jessica has nine lives, befitting her affinity to cats. Her phone periodically chimes out meows, in place of the cats she once had, which sustained her wellbeing when physical spaces and humans could not. They were her only companions in her most recent entry into homelessness, a pathway that took Jessica across borders, ferries, and streets along the Pacific Northwest, from unsuitable and unaffordable market housing to the only bed she could find during her initial days of exile, none other than in the emergency room.

 

Migrating into homelessness

Even in hazardous rental housing on Pender Island, which would eventually become untenable, her cats offered a sense of comfort.

“I should have avoided it in the first place cause it had this tiled screen behind it which looked sort of like the asbestos era stuff but it’s like okay kitties come and snuggle because we’re not gonna get any warmth from this thing,” she says.

Unable to find acceptable and affordable housing conditions on Pender Island, to which she would “go back in a flash if [she] could,” Jessica moved across the border in search of better housing options. There, she was robbed by someone she considered to be a friend, which forced her onto streets that she navigated back to Canada, amazingly, with her cats by her side.

After a brief stay at motel, Linda recounts, “it took me another four nights after that trying to sleep out or trying to sleep during the day so I could stay awake at night. But to collect bottles and all of that to get enough money for my cats and I to get to Canada somehow and the Anacortes ferry didn’t start for about two weeks and there was no place for me to stay down there and I wasn’t gonna last.”

The journey left Jessica in critical condition, her terminal being the emergency room at St. Paul’s Hospital – though there was no place to turn otherwise.

“And when I hit Vancouver I had pneumonia anyway and a concussion…I phoned [311] and the woman said there is not a shelter bed anywhere in the Lower Mainland.”

Still, the welfare of her cats remained her primary concern.

Jessica recalls, “[The 311 operator] said when was the last time you actually ate? And I said it was about four days ago cause I was coughing too and she said well if you don’t phone 911 I’m going to. And I said but I have my cats and she said don’t worry about them right now.”

The cats accompanied her to the hospital and during her stay, where they, once again, made inhospitable environments endurable.

“When I got in [the ambulance] the other [parademic] had put the cats on the gurney and the safety belts through the handle and so they were nicely tied down on the gurney,” says Jessica. So I didn’t mind so much but it was a weird experience that place.”

Wryly observant, she offers an anecdote. “There was even an assisted suicide being done in one corner of Emergency. I could never make this up because it involved crystals. It involved a turban with peacock feathers on the thing that no one ever put on. They just carried it. And then a nurse came to our door and wanted to know if I wanted to join the procession to escort this woman’s transition to her next life. I said thanks but no thanks. I said between me not being able to walk and the cats getting in and out it’s wish her well on her journey”

As mourning goes, it was the loss of her cats, perhaps even more than her loss of housing, that truly uprooted Jessica.

“They asked me if I would come to Victoria without the cats and I said no and then they ordered this medi-van thing and hauled me out anyway because they said we’re gonna release you to the street otherwise,” she recalls.

Newly resigned to placelessness, Linda responded, “yeah I don’t even know where we are anymore all the big buildings took away all the landlords that I used to use to get around Vancouver.”

For Jessica, who does not have family, her pets provided vital kinship in a world that has denied and deprived her of social support. Such is the cruelty of systems structured to punish those who are already vulnerable.

“It’s not fair to take something away from someone that it could be their best friend and not everyone has supportive family,” she says. “I mean even people who have family it’s not always supportive family and I don’t think it’s fair to take that away from people and they do. I mean hardly anywhere is pet friendly.”

 

A dog-eat-dog world

As an older woman with complex health needs, Jessica has experienced profound exclusion from the housing market, social policies, homelessness services, and the public at large. All of these systems privilege certain group identities, such as men, able-bodied individuals, and homeowners, at the expense of “others” in society. As it happens, the people who are valued in society are those who drive or benefit from economic exploitation, including in the housing market.

Over the past several decades, governments have perversely demolished the notion of housing as a public good essential for wellbeing, re-constructing from its rubble the prevailing conceptualization of housing as an engine for accumulating wealth.

Jessica’s itinerant journey along the coast was marked by displacement from the “big buildings” of Vancouver, Airbnbs that “took everything small right off the market” in Pender Island, and an inaccessible spectrum of private rentals in Victoria.

“The [pet friendly] building just behind the Bay it starts at $1695 a month and whenever anything starts you’re never gonna get it for that,” she says. “Budgets say you should only pay 30% of your income for housing; I say that doesn’t get you a garage in this city.”

With a monthly income of $1,358 on disability assistance, Jessica had no choice but to seek scarce and inadequate non-market housing. She entered a dehumanizing homelessness system that shuffled her around various facilities, none suitable for her safety and wellbeing. To her, they were not so much spaces of respite and healing as they were of risk and harm.

Upon arrival at Rock Bay shelter in Victoria, Jessica was greeted with demands for her to return to Vancouver due to their lack of wheelchair accessibility – a harbinger for the transient and prohibitive nature of shelter living. Her refusal led her to Arbutus shelter, a “no-barrier” environment that permitted “any behaviour…short of violence and hate speech.”

“Even [with] the violence,” reveals Linda, “they usually kick you out for two weeks or something.”

Outside, she witnessed a death from overdose and observed women sleeping with dogs during the day, fearful of nighttime streets. That they found more support in animals than in people was not lost on Jessica.

“They weren’t connected enough to be safe at night sleeping out even with the dog and I mean that dog was more than a friend – I mean it was a protector and early warning system and all of that,” she observes.

The threat of brutality, and of poor health, would become a part of her daily life. These risks collided, existentially, twice more to the emergency room.

In one instance, Jessica’s blood sugar plummeted just as a fight on premises, involving a swinging sock, rocks, broken glass, and a 2 x 4, escalated into bloodshed. This complicated the arrival of the ambulance.

She recalls, “my poor two ambulance attendants who I’m trying to push into the office said I can’t go in there.”

“But you two can and go in there,” she retorted.

All the way to the hospital, Jessica recounts, “they kept saying you can’t go back there. You just can’t go back there. And I said I have to. It’s the only place I’ve got to sleep right now. And she said we’ve never seen anything like that.”

Putting things in perspective, Jessica quipped, “well you wouldn’t because normally there’s a fight, someone is injured or something, they phone you then. You don’t see the fight from the beginning so you don’t get the whole effect of how the person that you’re fixing up how they ended up that way.”

More broadly, Jessica speaks to the failure of our public systems to redress, much less prevent, homelessness until a point of crisis.

Another time, after several seizures, before receiving medical attention, Jessica diagnosed her fellow ER patients and sometime neighbours with bemused familiarity.

“I was waiting for the neurosurgeon to come over and decide what he was going to do with me. There was a man flopping around one the floor and the man beside me said what’s wrong with him?”

“I think he’s just on heroin. He’ll stop flopping shortly,” replied Jessica, pithily. “I just recognized it from Arbutus.”

She continues, “there was one woman I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I should get a bucket of water and dump it over her head or what. But they changed her hair colour quite a lot to quite interesting colours.”

Preternaturally poised, Jessica dissects her chaotic surroundings with surgical precision, a capability developed by virtue of exposure and her background in anthropology.

Of her stay at Arbutus, Jessica reflects, “I have thought that would be a great place to do a participant observation study for anthropology you know.”

 

A cat’s cradle of policies and services

Violence does not always strike flagrantly, as in the distressing incidents that Jessica witnessed yet managed. More often, harm is inflicted invisibly, yet no less injuriously – if not even more so, given the systemic nature of oppression. It pervades policies, social services, and public attitudes that punish deviance from what is “normal,” in other words, who is privileged in society.

Not Jessica, who “[doesn’t] have trouble dealing with people” and “most behaviour,” but who encountered much more adversity in [structures physical and social] physical barriers, social stigma, and welfare services.

For all the perils of Arbutus shelter, Jessica still considered it to be “a relief” compared to her preceding stay at an emergency mat program on the floor of the First Metropolitan United church gymnasium.

“There’s gym mats that they sort of throw at you that you’re supposed to put down in your spot and you don’t get a pillow. You’re bunching up whatever clothes you have which I didn’t have very many,” she says.

It was an environment inimical to human dignity, let alone Jessica’s health as an individual with disabilities and diabetes.

“At that point I was living out of my walker. And they give you one blanket which has been disinfected since the night before and the only bathroom was totally inaccessible to me. It was down a flight of stairs and then down a hall.”

Given no choice in breakfast other than oatmeal with brown sugar, Jessica thought, “I’m going to be shot by my endocrinologist.”

When her needs weren’t ignored, they were shamed, floodlit in humiliating relief.

“They don’t open until 11 and those gym lights come on bright at 6 am and you’ve got about 5 minutes to get out of there. And you’re supposed to take your mat up to the stage where they spray it and the older ones who would come up and say really? You really think you’re gonna get that up on top of this walker?”

Jessica then cycled through a succession of shelters in addition to Arbutus, including the Scotsman, Sandy Merriman, and Portland Housing, many without suitable food options or mobility supports. It would take five years in shelters, and nearly three times that long on the BC Housing wait list, before Jessica would secure long-term housing. Although subsidized housing has provided some degree of privacy and stability to Jessica, she still struggles with the building’s poorly maintained elevator and no-pet policy, which fail to fulfill her physical and emotional requirements for a home. “My kitties [were] my family,” she says.

Jessica’s financial circumstances also remain precarious due to social policies that have also failed to support her healthcare needs. Jessica’s disability assistance income scarcely covers the cost of medical prescriptions and supplies that are excluded from her housing subsidy, unlike that for people receiving income assistance.

She discloses, “when you start adding up the things I pay for…I pay $825 for my apartment [and medical expenses]” – more than half of Jessica’s monthly income.

Such is the precarity of housing insecurity, even beyond homelessness, especially for older women whose social disadvantages have accumulated over a lifetime. The irony is that even after a career of working for the government, public programs and services did not respond in kind to Jessica. That is why she sought kindness elsewhere, not in institutions, but rather in human (and other) beings.

“I don’t have anything solid to hold onto. Yeah getting down is no problem at all. I fall really easily,” says Linda, reflecting upon her nights on the gym floor, and perhaps more generally, her vulnerability in society.

Yet she has always stood up for herself, at least figuratively, in the face of alienating stigma.

“I don’t get company all that often you know. Mind you people do think of you differently even people who have known you if they find out you spent time on the street they assume you’re using drugs. They assume you could be in the sex trade,” she says.

“Except when someone suggested that at Arbutus I said oh yes just every man’s fantasy the grandmother type leaning over her walker cause I can’t stand up straight,” she continues, always equipped with a riposte.

 

“You have more in common with us than you think”

Jessica always finds levity, or at least absurdity, in her situation, even at its most traumatic. Perhaps the humour dulls the pain, reducing to farce the Sisyphean experience of homelessness. Perhaps it is also an expression of humanity, something that society has consistently threatened to strip away, but that Jessica strives to see in other people. She does so with the discerning eye of an anthropologist, without the distortions of public perception.

“I don’t judge anybody’s activities unless they’ve hurt me or hurt somebody that I care about,” she says.

Jessica intersperses her story with those of others she has encountered along the way, diverse people collapsed under the demeaning label of homelessness. Among her compatriots in the no-(wo)man’s-land of shelters: a sex worker who worked 8-hour shifts while battling pneumonia; a woman whose addictions stemmed from a childhood skull fracture; a mother who gave birth in a pool before 27 medical students to obtain her son’s education funds; and a man who was displaced from his cabin of 20 years, with only enough time to take his wheelchair and cat – who won many fans, Jessica included.

She shows remarkable interest in, and empathy towards, people with whom she has crossed paths that are very different from her own. These are capabilities that the condition of homelessness has cultivated in Jessica, even as it has prevented the public from extending the same qualities to her, to the “Other.”

“Everyone has a different story,” according to Jessica, in the collective anthology of humankind. “Talk to us – you might find you have more in common with us than you think.”

On her experience of housing instability, Jessica says, “I think it’s made me more open to people. But in a lot of ways even with my anthropology I was pretty open to begin with.”

This openness, in spite of the betrayal and discrimination she has faced, is also what has enabled Jessica to receive life-preserving physical, social, and emotional support.

She credits multiple support workers who have phoned the ambulance after she suffered seizures, helped her to secure subsidized housing, and connected her to the opportunity to engage in research work.

Just as important to Jessica are “people that [she] consider[s] friends,” such as women who would look after her belongings in shelters, even leaving gifts – a behaviour as feline as one of these objects.

“The women [at Arbutus] gave me little keepsakes or other little things,” she recalls, fondly. “One or two had probably been shoplifted but one of the women found a bobble head kitty and painted it a bit and put eyeliner on and she had that sitting at the foot of my bed when I woke up one morning.”

This was an affirmation of personal identity in an environment where the risk of losing one’s belongings, and sense of belonging, is constant.

“Everyone is not a bad person,” Jessica notes. The world may be predatory, but people survive by caring for one another.

Back at St. Paul’s Hospital, Jessica shared this understanding with someone who cared for her health and dignity, a nurse. When Jessica relayed to him her wishes to remain with her cats, he responded with acceptance.

“Yeah no problem,” he said. “Do you know who our clientele is?”

“Mostly downtown Eastside,” answered Jessica.

“Right,” he assured, “we’ve had a lot weirder things in here than cats believe me. We’ve had things that would eat cats.”

“You don’t have any those currently, do you?” asked Jessica, characteristically quick-witted.

“No,” he replied.

 

<– GO BACK

Photo by StockSnap from Pixabay

 

When Leanne was offered housing at a sheltering hotel during the pandemic, she had hoped secure a place to rest at the age of 68, after residing in a tent for the previous two years. On the day I spoke to Leanne over the phone, a mouse had scurried into her hotel room at the Howard Johnson supportive housing facility. Although staff members were on-site 24/7, they neither notified her of a mouse problem in the building, nor helped to remove it from her unit. Self-reliant by circumstance, Leanne googled homemade mouse repellants and fortified her bedside with aluminum foil, oil, black pepper, and cinnamon. While small in size, the pest threatens to aggravate larger and older burdens that Leanne has carried for over 68 years in life. “Tonight I’m gonna be worrying about the mouse but I just wish I could get some sleep at night,” she said. “I have terrible nightmares and right now I just wish I could get some sleep at night and wake up like I never thought about anything. It’s really haunting me. It’s very very daunting, like every night you have nightmares about post-traumatic stress and triggers – really bad things.”

A good night’s rest is certainly difficult to achieve in a place where she sleeps with a baseball bat under her pillow and a hammer in her bedside drawer. Leanne emphasizes that this is truly out of necessity, as with most survival strategies. She would rather trap bugs in jars to be released instead of harming them, but it’s unclear whether the same fate awaits the mouse in the presence of Leanne’s new cat. Leanne, herself, has frequently felt hunted while living in homelessness and housing insecurity, even after leaving the danger of the streets. At the Howard Johnson, she continues to be victimized by other residents, including her abusive ex-partner, the police, and staff members who have assaulted, neglected, dismissed, or unfairly punished her. It is difficult for her to trust health, housing, and legal authorities who have often failed to address her multiple physical and mental health conditions with care and empathy. “So how are you gonna put your faith in them? You’re not gonna run to them next time right? And then you have to explain yourself over and over again right and they’ll say oh just go for a walk or whatever. And [then] I went for a walk and my legs collapsed underneath me.”

 

Abuses of power

On one occasion, Leanne worried that staff members at the hotel had inadequately prevented overdose in her ex-partner, whom she was unable to leave behind while living in the same building as him. Staff members responded by calling in the police, who forcibly arrested her, locked her in a van at night for six hours, then detained in a jail cell. When Leanne returned to the hotel the following day, she was inexplicably locked out of her room, before being imprisoned inside her room for hours. The whole incident left Leanne with physical injuries, feelings of dehumanization, and an eviction threat. She had experienced all of those things numerous times before, but the repeated blows of trauma hurt more each time, not less.

In a national survey of women experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, 79% reported having a disability, including physical (60%), mental (46.4%), and cognitive (22.4%) health challenges. Leanne has all three types of disabilities, which were sustained from underlying conditions, the lifelong effects of violence or abuse, and the onslaught of homelessness late in life. Women with disabilities experience significant barriers to accessing shelters, affordable housing, and facilities with suitable physical or mental health services. They are also disproportionately vulnerable to eviction from these spaces – at a time when they require protection the most. Leanne emphasizes the injustice of penalizing or excluding vulnerability, saying, “that’s horrible trying to threaten people, especially older people, with medical problems. If I have to go outside somewhere people are gonna rape me out there, kill me, or knife me. Where am I gonna go? And why do I have to go? It’s abuse that’s what it is. It’s like oh my God how much can I take? And I’ve been a punching bag.” Leanne has suffered many forms of violence, but its institutional iteration has felt the most unjust. Gendered violence may happen in isolation, especially during COVID-19, but it is hardly an isolated event. Rather, it is systemically normalized by our legal and social institutions, including ones that are intended to protect and shelter people who are most vulnerable. Leanne will never forget the police officer’s response when she protested her arrest in the hotel. “You should have seen what I did to my wife when we got divorced,” he casually threatened.

 

Cyclical Trauma

Mainstream shelters and transitional housing environments are frequently unsafe and unsuitable for women, many of whom are also unable to access emergency housing for women fleeing violence. On an average day in 2019, almost 1,000 women and children across Canada were turned away from housing services in the Violence Against Women (VAW) sector. Even among women who are able to access VAW shelters (e.g., transition houses, safe homes), 78% of which are short-term residences, one in five return to their abusers in the absence of adequate, affordable, and suitable housing options upon departure. These rates are likely to have risen during COVID-19, which generated a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence due to isolation measures and social disruptions that have disproportionately impacted women. Leanne had previously stayed in a transition house that “felt like a home” in between periods of living on the streets with her abusive partner. The timeline of Leanne’s stay(s) is now fuzzy, blurred by the combined effects of her brain injury, the chronic transience of housing precarity, and the erasure of identity under the stigma of homelessness and mental health. What remains clear, however, is that she left the transition house with scarce places to turn other than her abuser. “I forget many things now,” Leanne admitted, “but I try not to forget who I am.”

Housing models typically depict a linear progression from emergency shelters or transition homes, through temporary supportive housing, and ending with subsidized or market housing. The reality is that many people cycle in, out, and between these stages, often remaining in temporary or unsafe spaces indefinitely. This is particularly true for women, who tend to rely on informal relationships – even if they are abusive – and for whom the stakes of securing safe housing are much higher due to their vulnerability to gender-based violence. They are higher, still, for older women with disabilities such as Leanne, who may require permanent residence in facilities with targeted physical and mental health supports.

The paradox of precarious housing is that one is perpetually trapped in danger or shut out of a society that punishes resistance to social norms or authority, even – or especially – when diverse needs are overlooked under the status quo. People are caught in a cycle of trauma that decreases one’s capacity to survive and escape homelessness, while demanding that they do so. They are met with prohibitive paperwork, eligibility criteria, and authoritative or arbitrary rules, while being held to an unrealistic standard of behaviour in order to receive help. “You’re so tired and worn out you can’t even think normally anymore. Your body is just so worn down. You’re not very strong and you’re not making good decisions and you do things when you’re scared that you wouldn’t normally do if you were housed properly,” she said. “Even if you’re precariously housed, you’re still not safe. All these emotions come up to the surface and then it’s hard to deal with. It’s exhausting.”

Despite the chronic stress of living in the hotel, Leanne feels that she could not have survived much longer “moving, moving, moving” on the streets. She “couldn’t figure out how to live on the streets with a walker,” let alone with lung complications, Parkinson’s disease, and a traumatic brain injury sustained during this time. She contends that a permanent home would provide her with time, space, and protection to heal from physical and emotional injuries. “It’s part of being human. It’s just something your body needs. It’s like breaking your leg and somebody ripping it off instead of keeping it together until it heals right and expecting to walk on that when it needs to be healed right. You need that time. It’s a time thing and it’s a familiar thing to have your own home,” she relates. “Everybody wants a forever home but it’s really important when you’re almost 70 years old. Oh my God I just want to be in one place and not have to move again. It would be so nice and comforting to stay put and not have to uproot myself. I can’t do it. I’m too old for that. I’m not resilient enough. My health isn’t good. And I’m not the only one. There’s tons of us on the streets.”

 

Pandemic response

Leanne left her tent on Pandora Avenue for the Howard Johnson during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. It was a time of personal and collective hope amid social turmoil. That year, the BC government purchased five hotel buildings that were re-purposed as temporary supportive housing sites with wraparound supports including harm reduction, medical services, meals, security guards, and some peer support workers. These hotels were rapidly established as a response to a provincial health order, which mandated shelter for homeless individuals due to their risk of contracting COVID-19 in encampments. While the hotel sites represent unprecedented political responses to homelessness, they have also perpetuated systemic gaps and barriers that impact people who are most vulnerable. Rapid housing initiatives tend to prioritize removing homelessness from public view, not least from gentrifying areas and tourist destinations such as Beacon Hill Park. They often homogenize diverse identities within environments designed for people who are most visibly homeless, namely middle-aged and able-bodied men.

The resulting lack of fit between people, environment, and community (or lack thereof) can be just as uprooting as the experience of homelessness, if not more so. Leanne, for instance, has been unable to receive the physical protection and mental health supports she requires, and does not need services for people who have been more street-entrenched, and with whom she lacks a sense of belonging. Housing authorities had initially promised to move all residents into long-term affordable housing that has been under construction, albeit at rates that struggle to compensate for both the rapid influx of housing need during COVID-19, and the steady increase of market housing costs. The shortage of affordable housing has caused bottlenecks across the housing system, including emergency, transitional, and Mental Health and Substance Use (MHSU) housing, wherein many people are misplaced. Some people are unable to access the supports that they need (e.g., counselling, substance use services), whereas others who prefer independent living arrangements are unable to move on from transitional housing. Two years into the pandemic, Leanne remains waiting for a permanent home, hoping to age with stability and safety.

 

Surviving Exile

Although Leanne’s spiral into housing insecurity had begun long before she suddenly found herself on the streets. Nearly 50 years ago, she moved from her childhood home in London, Ontario, to Vancouver Island with a husband who turned out to be abusive. After leaving him and raising two daughters in the Comox Valley, Leanne entered a mental health housing facility that helped her to manage the lingering effects of intimate partner violence: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe anxiety disorder. When the facility closed nine years later due to funding cuts, Leanne moved 200 kilometres away from her family in the Comox Valley region to the city of Victoria, where she had initially settled into another mental health housing facility. It would be the last place that Leanne called “home,” one from which she was evicted with scarce notice or explanation, and no legal recourse. Because the BC Residential Tenancy Act excludes residents of supportive housing (including mental health housing), their rights are not recognized by authorities. Leanne was told that her arbitrary eviction was “perfectly legal,” with no process through which she can contest it. Leanne was unable to retrieve her belongings, including handmade cards for her grandchildren, before they were all thrown out.

Leanne spent the next two years shuffling between a tent in a public park and various shelters. In these spaces, she experienced theft, physical attacks, and sexual assault from others living on the street, as well as intimate partner violence. Although Leanne’s partner had threatened her life on many occasions, she stayed in the relationship to shield herself against violence from other individuals. “I know how to play my hand,” Leanne reflected, alluding to multiple abusive relationships in the past, and the impossible trade-offs that women in her situation must make. “There are no bad choices. They were the only choices I had.”

And Leanne was unfairly punished for things she did to survive, including remaining with her partner. After Leanne’s partner instigated a dispute that took place in a shelter, both were banned from the facility. “I was kicked out at the age of 68,” she remarked, “and I didn’t even do anything.” Whenever she returned to use the washroom, an amenity that was hard to find on the streets, Leanne was escorted off the premises by the police, handcuffed. While staff members were frequently unavailable when Leanne needed them, she noticed that they would “drop out of the sky” to apprehend her. “[It was] sort of like a cat and mouse thing – throw me around and try and charge me with something and there was nothing to charge me with,” she noted.

Leanne has felt preyed upon by law enforcement and other individuals on the street, and let down by the people who were supposed to protect her. In situations of violence, whether institutional or interpersonal, the entities that help and hurt are often one and the same. She recalled that one staff member at a shelter had “laughed in her face” when she relayed concerns about people who tried to attack her, and who appeared to be targeting people with walkers. “Men try to get you to doubt yourself,” Leanne remarked, but her suspicions were soon proven. The moment she stepped outside the premises, Leanne was ambushed in an attack that caused a brain injury and the loss of all her belongings, including mood-stabilizing medication and ID required for health services. She experienced theft not only by other people on the street, but also at the hands of police, who confiscated $600 worth of tent supplies. This loss created a need to steal food, leading to further apprehensions from law enforcement. As an older woman with disabilities, Leanne is at once invisible and hyper-visible: unseen and unheard, yet targeted due to her vulnerability, isolation, and difference from both society at large and the homeless community. One shelter staff member, Leanne recalled, warned that she would “stick out like a sore thumb” on the streets.

 

Advocating for oneself

Although the hotel is far from a “forever home,” it gave Leanne the opportunity to leave the streets and her abusive relationship. In the ten minutes that an outreach worker gave her to leave the tent she shared with her abuser, Leanne realized the extent of her exhaustion on one hand, and strength on the other. “It took a lot for me to come up with ‘oh yes I need my own room’ and that was a huge thing for me to be able to take care of myself that way cause I was always a victim. I never realized I got a choice now and I don’t have to be in the same room as someone that’s gonna hurt me constantly,” she reflected. “Thank God I thought of that you know because I was so exhausted from being on the street for over a year and you’re constantly moving 24/7 and looking behind your back and then you’ve got to be able to be strong enough to realize, ‘hey I need my own room.’ [To] stand up for myself and have a choice. I have a choice. I can get my own room. So I need to.”

Leanne has always stood up herself, even at her most vulnerable. She has twice shared her experiences of injustice to the media, first in the aftermath of her eviction from the mental health housing facility, then following her eviction threat from the hotel. What motivated her to do so was the lack of accountability mechanisms to keep abuses of power in check. This points to a fragmented service landscape in which many supportive housing sites, including the Howard Johnson hotel, are operated by non-profit housing organizations with policies that may not follow those established by BC Housing.

Although Leanne feared further penalization for going public, her eviction was eventually stopped. Her gamble, one of many she has made to survive, had paid off. She had wagered her housing upon exposure of what happens to vulnerable people behind closed doors, once they are removed from public view. Leanne figured that authorities would avoid victimizing someone with a voice and audience. Her first news story eventually reached the provincial minister of mental health and addictions, who acknowledged the fragmented nature of the mental health system in which Leanne had initially lost her housing. But systemic issues, by nature, go far beyond individual decisionmakers and cases.

 

Fractured systems and people

Three years after the minister’s admission, Leanne remains unable to return to a mental health housing facility. The funding cut that thrust her into housing insecurity belongs to a wider pattern of underfunded community health services that were intended to compensate for the closure of psychiatric hospitals in between the 1960’s and 1990’s. This phenomenon, combined with the withdrawal of public investments in social housing since the 1980s, has driven many people into a homeless-serving system that has struggled to meet growing demand and support diverse needs. The pandemic, however, has catalyzed historic political re-investments in various housing supports. Over the past two years, the federal government has allocated $2.5 billion to expedite the delivery of affordable housing units through its Rapid Housing Initiative, as well as a further $250 million for emergency and transitional housing for women fleeing violence. In 2022, the BC provincial government promised $633 million for initiatives to prevent or reduce homelessness, including $264 million for permanent housing and $164 million for complex-care housing that would support people with various health, mental health, and substance use challenges.

In Victoria, 100 complex care units are set to open by 2023. Even so, political commitments may not reach people who are most vulnerable, such as women with physical and mental health disabilities, unless their needs are seen and prioritized. Leanne also wishes for the separation of mental health and substance use services, because their conflation is often unsuitable for older women, like herself, who do not use substances. Leanne recalls that her initial mental health facility had closed due to the re-direction of funds to substance use services that she nonetheless supports, but would not benefit from. The irony is that diverse needs are either unsuitably distinguished, or placed into discrete boxes where people may not fit, bureaucratically or literally.

It is important to note that Leanne has slipped through the cracks of not one, but three systems, having failed to secure housing through siloed services pertaining to mental health, women fleeing violence, and homelessness in general. Gaps within and between various services occur at the intersections of multiple social vulnerabilities that are often treated in isolation, and cumulatively borne by individuals who may differ from stereotypes or dominant user groups. In Leanne’s case, she had been expelled from an MHSU system that had failed to address the root cause of her mental health challenges: gender-based violence. At the same time, she was unable to secure long-term housing through Violence Against Women (VAW) services that may overlook older adults due to the prioritization of families and a lack of connectivity to medical and mobility supports. Meanwhile, the general homeless-serving sector has been unable to meet Leanne’s needs for physical and mental health, as well as safety from her abuser.

Arguably, Leanne did not simply fall into homelessness; she was evicted and excluded by people who had failed to care for her needs, and who had even punished her for having or expressing these needs. Using the metaphor of childhood, Leanne captures the child-like vulnerability of old age while demonstrating the wisdom that accrues with it. “[Eviction] is like a little kid being ripped off their mother and taken to child protection through social services for no reason and ripping the child apart. They need to be in their own home with their mom – that kind of feeling; it’s just a human need. That continuity and needing to be in the same bed at night and not having somebody kick you out of your home because you need to be settled for as long as possible after being out in a situation where you weren’t in that place – no bed or nothing of your own.” The significance of continuity and empathy highlights the need for person-centred care, an adaptive approach that is tailored to individual needs, circumstances, and goals as defined by service users.

 

Connections that heal

On several occasions, Leanne has felt empowered through opportunities to be supported on her own terms. After both of her brushes with eviction, peer support workers had connected her to the media, and more importantly, listened to her. They had affirmed her reality when she was frequently dismissed or disbelieved by people in positions of power. “You’ve been through so many bad things with people that never understood the truth of what happened, and why didn’t they? And why would you be threatening people to put them outside? Why wouldn’t you help them?” she implored. “You know they’re vulnerable enough. It’s like taking off their clothes and throwing them out and then making it worse than they’re already going through by threatening to put them outside.”

Although some staff members have abused their power, others have used this power to support Leanne. Recently, staff members had been trying to help her secure a room in another supportive housing facility where she may feel safer, away from her ex-partner. Leanne felt that things were starting to look up. “The other day, [my ex-partner] tried to hug me and stop me from leaving, but I didn’t care for it,” she said, proudly. She didn’t need a man in her life, she asserted, now that she has her cat, Angel. “He’s just the best company I’ve ever had. He’s so good. He can’t speak human language, but he has his own language and he knows what’s going on and we communicate so well. My anxiety is so much better because of my cat you know and I don’t have to run to [my ex-partner] who’s abusive.” Leanne trusts that Angel will protect her from the mouse as well. “I know my cat will look after me,” she said.

Leanne’s dream is to return to the Comox Valley to be closer to her daughters and grandchildren. She has hardly seen her young grandchildren, partly due to the pandemic, and also because of her daughter’s own abusive partner. Trauma may have passed down through generations, but so has love. Leanne keeps in touch with her grandchildren by sending them cards, even though she can no longer write after 26 years of living with Parkinson’s disease – an accomplishment in which she takes pride. So, she used graphic stamps to complete her card, a masterpiece of creativity in the face of adversity. “My daughter told me [my grandson] loved it. His eyes lit up,” she said. And in that moment, so did Leanne’s voice.

 

<– GO BACK

Photo by TobiasBrunner on Pixabay

 

For much of her life, Celeste had to be a “scrapper” in order to survive. Of the many things she’s braved – trauma behind closed doors, on the streets, and in her own mind – showing vulnerability was one of the most difficult. It was also one of the most transformational, empowering her to re-connect to a world from which she was alienated by abuse and homelessness. These days, as a peer support worker for the Umbrella Society and a co-researcher at the University of Victoria, she courageously shares her experiences with people who use housing services, and others who study them, including me.

Celeste’s story transcends the strictures of time, showing the cyclical realities of women fleeing violence, the resounding legacies of oppression, and the possibilities that yet arise in older age. Her recollections are sometimes fragmentary, interrupted by pain, but they evoke truths beyond dates, locations, and other details that belong on housing application forms. Her re-construction of a broken past is in itself a creative process of identity-making. Like a Cubist portrait, the structural ambiguity of Celeste’s story casts her multitude of selves, sentiments, and experiences, into vivid relief.

 

Fleeing abuse, numbing the pain 

While her narrative arc resists chronology, it charts meandering pathways in and out of homelessness, through the cyclical rupture, perversion, and repair of relationships from which one derives a sense of home. Celeste’s journey into homelessness thus begins with her separation from her kids, who chose to live with their father amid her relationship with an abusive partner. This initial trauma precipitated, in rapid succession, events that culminated in her loss of housing.

“When the kids left it didn’t take me long to hit the hard drugs…it was a lot better to drink and use than it was to feel the abandonment of my children leaving. And I wouldn’t let anybody in my family into see me once this happened. I just discontinued my relationship with my family,” she says

During this time, in her most vulnerable state, the abuse escalated.

“[The abuse] got worse once the kids were gone. And then I tried to leave him and he would break into my place and he would put his lingerie that he liked me wearing or the best video he would put it in the tape recorder that he liked to watch or he would set the table with his favourite meal. Like when I walked in everything would be gone but he’d leave things letting me know that no matter what it took he was gonna get to me.”

Shortly after an attempt to leave him, her circumstances quickly deteriorated into homelessness. It was a trauma that Celeste, still reeling from the loss of her children, could hardly process.

“I got kicked out of my place because I started bringing parties there. I was using drugs there. I didn’t care about anything once my kids were gone. So it was a matter of weeks before I hit rock bottom and I lost my place,” she reveals. “So for me to get kicked out, when I got kicked out, I didn’t care. I didn’t want responsibility. I didn’t want to have any responsibility at all. I was numb. I wanted to be numb.”

 

“I had to get tough on the streets”  

Celeste was highly adaptive even, and especially, at rock bottom. She coped with profound loss, of family, self-worth, control, safety, and shelter by forging an alternate life on the streets, with a tough persona to match. Initially, this was a mechanism for masking one type of pain with another, manifesting internalized blame in external surroundings.

She confides, “I felt like such a bad person with my kids gone. I lost a lot of time over that you know numbing myself. I really did. I thought I deserved [sleeping on the streets]. Like I felt that I deserved to wake up cold and hungry you know. I was just torturing myself is what I was doing.”

Neither the punishment nor the supposed transgression were truly of Celeste’s own doing. Rather, they ruptured in Celeste under the combined force of violence inflicted by men, residential schools, and governments, abiding by structures of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.

She found new community on the streets, which offered some protection against the violence she endured behind closed doors.

“Then it became comfortable and new and they were safe,” says Celeste. They were convenient. They were there you know and…your family now. Come on sis and complete strangers who were adopting me into the homeless life. I still consider them my family.”

In the absence of domestic family, she built an equivalent social unit on the streets, one that is as insular as the family is nuclear. This is where she retreated to avoid judgement shame, judgement, and her past.

“I hid and you can’t be found on the street unless you want to be found. It’s a cardinal rule. You never give info away especially to family… I did everything to avoid them,” she divulges. “Because I’d found new family and friends who’d seen the bad side of me and accepted it. Whereas in this real life here there’s certain things [and behaviours] that we live by.”

Another cardinal rule, Celeste reveals, is that “you don’t talk to cops.” For they represent institutional agents of displacement and dispossession, not least to Indigenous people such as Celeste. She explains, “they’re the ones on the streets that make our life what it is you know like if they tell us we can’t sleep there we’re not gonna sleep there. We’re kicked out of a store; we gotta stay away from the store.”

Abiding by an alternative “code of ethics,” she successfully inhabited a street-entrenched existence outside of institutions that fail to protect, and more often victimize, homeless women.

“My behaviour back then was vicious and bad and I was respected and liked,” she says.

But this was born of necessity for self- and community- defence, which could only go so far in the face of pervasive violence against women.

Celeste reflects, “I felt like the real me out that there would have been beaten the way that I was portraying myself on the streets if I let myself be like this. I would have got beat up. I did anyways. I would have been raped and my stuff stolen, walked all over, and a lot of things did happen to me like that. So to say out of fear I had to get tough on the streets”

Throughout the interview, Celeste refers to her biological and “street” families interchangeably, without distinction, signalling comparable kinship with both groups. At different points in time, they have both attempted to shield Celeste from violence at the hands of her on-off abusive boyfriend, who, on the other hand, represents the corruption of familial relationships. These networks, on which women depend for survival, are a double-edged sword that by turns protects and wounds.

“My family got him away from me,” says Celeste, speaking about her street networks. “And it didn’t take me long to get back with him because he knew my routine.”

 

Cyclical violence  

Celeste’s experiences of intimate partner violence, and of homelessness, are cyclical and synchronized. She delimits these periods not so much by chronological time, the specifics of which have become blurred, but rather a sequence of trauma sharply remembered.

“it was an off and on relationship with him until I actually broke it off and was able to leave. And so I wouldn’t give an estimate of how long that took. It probably took about a few years, 3 years, off and on with him,” she recalls. “And there was times that I’d have a place. Over the years after I started to try and get my life together and of course I got with another abusive guy.”

After several rounds of detox and stabilization, Celeste achieved sobriety for 4-5 months, during which she stayed in a recovery house awaiting supportive housing. But the death of her father triggered her return to her abuser, once again to numb the pain when housing and health systems failed to alleviate it.

“I went to my ex-boyfriend’s in my funeral clothes and I just wanted to forget the world and I relapsed,” she says. “And nobody could find me for 5 or 6 weeks.”

Isolation may have incubated Celeste’s vulnerability to abuse, substance use, and housing insecurity, but these conditions do not exist in isolation from wider systems of oppression. Going back further still, Celeste’s trauma has also cycled through generations. It has affected her since childhood, when she survived sexual abuse and upbringing in a residential school. Institutionalized injustice, such as colonialism, masks itself by blaming and further disenfranchising the victims. The internalization of such blame has further diminished access to housing for Celeste, who already faces stacked vulnerabilities related to Indigeneity, single motherhood, and poverty.

“I was still beating myself up off and on…I’d think I didn’t deserve [housing]. I was such a bad mother. I was such a bad partner. I was such a bad cooker,” she says.

Celeste is being literal, in a sense. On the streets, she coped with self-loathing by projecting it onto others and dissociating from herself.

“Doing harm to somebody else made me feel like it was me that I was beating… like I visualized myself when I was doing it yet I was doing it to myself,” she observes. “I really put myself through a lot of physical and emotional [damage].”

She adds that she was unable to break the cycle of homelessness until she developed a sense of self-worth, acknowledging, “I was up and down until I started healing myself. Then I was able to get a place and keep it. But until then I couldn’t.”

Unlike victim-blaming models of self-improvement, which often espouse individualism and personal responsibility, Celeste aspires to achieve resilience through relationality and self-forgiveness.

These differences warrant further distinction between responsibility and its frequently co-opted counterpart, empowerment. Systems of oppression, and the people who wield its power, are ultimately responsible for Celeste’s homelessness; but Celeste is powerful for navigating relational networks to survive, and even recover from, the injuries that oppressive structures have visited upon her.

Reflecting upon her decision to move from her abuser into supportive housing secured by her brother, Celeste admits, “I couldn’t do the streets. I was too old. I was too sore. I was too broken. And by then I was already getting diagnosis with my health and I was realizing that I beat my body to shit you know.”

In her acceptance of vulnerability, rather than blame; care, rather than false autonomy, lies Celeste’s strength. She is not responsible for her circumstances of homelessness, which occurred for reasons beyond her control, but she is all the more powerful for surviving it.

“Every woman out there,” she explains, “needs some form of support – some form of guidance, some form of help, some form of support. And I would say that again in all truth, because we’re women we tend to have to prove ourselves harder out there.”

 

“She accepted me for me” 

As the severance of caring relationships thrust Celeste into homelessness, so their restoration helped to draw her out of it, beginning with her courage to leave her abuser.

“I believe it was because I wasn’t left alone,” she asserts. “I got the strength to leave him. He was a big part of my addiction. He was a big part of my on the streets. He was a big part of me not having friends or my family anymore.”

She credits her recovery to personal advocates, first her brother who connected her to Our Place (supportive housing), then three support workers from Our Place, PEERS, and Umbrella. In this network of peers, unlike in traditional treatment programs, Celeste’s wellness is a collective, rather than individual responsibility facilitated by social inclusion, rather than discipline.

“Where it started with me was Our Place because of the worker there. She made me feel so comfortable about being me. She accepted me for me whether I was an addict, whether I was drunk,” recalls Celeste. “Once I started feeling safe everything else fell into place. I found myself wanting a worker from Umbrella. Wanting to work on my addiction. Wanting to go to my doctor. Wanting to physically get well.”

When someone else believed in her, Celeste could begin to believe in herself. The challenges encountered by Celeste may be manifold, but sometimes one person can make all the difference. In addition to being a recipient of care, Celeste’s current role as a provider of care has also helped her to reckon with her past life and repair its familial bonds.

“I started feeling comfortable and acknowledging my old self even though there was a lot to deal with,” she discloses. “Doing the peer support has given me an opportunity to work on myself you know to see things that I hid or put away or didn’t want to deal with and work on it. And yet I phone my daughter. I’ll phone my other daughter. I talk to my mom. And my daughters are non judgmental”

She derived much more meaning from these relational networks than from more institutional and less personalized supports, which incongruously regimented Celeste’s otherwise fluid narration of time.

She says, “I was going to meetings like clockwork – noon and night, noon and night, noon and night. And then after a few months one day I didn’t go and I thought you know I’m okay.”

Even in safer spaces, the threat of violence still persists, its trauma dulled but never extinguished.

She recounts one harrowing encounter, “when my daughter was coming to pick me up and I [had] my suitcase and [banged] right into him. Like I open the door at Our Place and there he is and he grabs me and he’s hugging me. Oh God was that ever hard to get into that car. Oh my God.”

But family is a source of protection for Celeste, even as an idea, as a source of motivation and self-worth.

“And I kept telling myself I kept visualizing my grandkids and how far I’d come and you know what I wanted for my future and he wasn’t a part of it,” she reflects. “So I had to visualize that while he was hugging the crap out of me and yeah that was a real tester that one.”

Through referrals from Our Place and the Aboriginal Coalition, another testament to the utility of connectivity, Celeste secured subsidized housing, where she once again found her “own little family,” only this time with the freedom to adapt her surroundings to her identity, instead of the other way around.

“Now I got my own couch set and I got my own bedroom suite and I strive to work to get better. And I wanted to turn my home into something that feels like me,” she says

Celeste’s home perhaps also reflects her simultaneously aspirational and retrospective selves.

“I guess I have a lot to work on still obviously you know and just not dying and not going has made me realize that I’m able to do what I’m doing right now,” she observes. “When I’m doubting myself I have to visualize things that I’ve conquered and being alive is one of them.”

In life as in recollection, Celeste’s story is sporadic but never spare. It is not a trope of rehabilitative redemption, but rather a tribute to the resilience and revitalization of her spirit.

She remarks, “people have told me that [they’ve] seen me die and I’d come back.”

 

Resurgence 

Just as trauma is cyclical, so, too, is healing. The recovery of Celeste’s self-worth, and the resurgence of her cultural identity, are inextricably linked. Colonialism took from Celeste her ancestral ties to culture, not least to land; but the process of reclaiming culture has helped to ground her sense of place and belonging – things that comprise a “home.”

“It really opened up my ancestry, my growth,” she reflects.

Celeste did not understand this significance until she had the opportunity to engage with an Indigenous worker who “contributed so much to [her] life,” as well as with other Indigenous women in a program held by the Aboriginal Coalition.

“You don’t know you need it until it’s offered,” she said. “That’s how it was with the Aboriginal Coalition. I didn’t know that I needed these walks in the wilderness and I needed to connect with Mother Earth. I didn’t realize I needed the support of them in helping me connect with my family again or connect with anything to do with my culture. I didn’t know I needed those things until I got them.”

People have different needs that are specific to their identities, that they may not be aware of due to the mainstream oppression or exclusion of these identities. Celeste’s process of self-discovery was supported by those who were willing to meet her where she was at: in situation, gender, culture, and age. Celeste continues to locate her evolving sense of self later in life, giving new meeting to the “coming-of-age” tale – once again, bending linearity.

“Some people like might know what they want and need in term[s of] a line and somebody might be like me and don’t know you need that extra support until it’s offered.”

 

<– GO BACK

In Crisis?:

If you require urgent emotional support, including having thoughts of suicide and other mental health issues, please call Vancouver Island Crisis Line: 1-888-494-3888.

Youth (under 25 years of age) may access youthspace.ca for online emotional support.

For other resources, including shelter availability, visit bc211.ca