In the Labyrinth of Homelessness

Photo by qimono on Pixabay

 

Christy took pride in being a community researcher, a role in which she applied her analytical mind, empathetic ear, and dedication to giving back – even when she had lost so much herself.

“If I knew at the outset of my career that I could do this for a living I’d probably be doing it. I’d be the next Brené Brown,” she said.

Research was a new career trajectory for Christy, who had been a former director of fundraising at national and regional levels. This newfound line of work also held personal significance for Christy, who had lived experience in the study topic: homelessness and housing insecurity in older women. Older women without housing represent a growing yet overlooked population with unique needs and perspectives that Christy helped illuminate.

“I have a lot of different experiences that I thought would be valuable to share. Because I’m close to retirement, this research will benefit me, as well as a growing number of

women. And I think that’s really important in the next several years as “affordable” housing is being built. I really believe that this cohort needs to be factored in as a segment.”

Christy’s experiences also inspired her to stand in solidarity with other individuals who have been homeless. In a small group of volunteers who experienced homelessness, she advocated for a minimum standard of care in transitional housing environments such as the facilities she had stayed in. She was committed to changing the dehumanizing nature of a homeless-serving system that she had entered for reasons far beyond her control, as is usually the case for people who lose their housing.

 

Into the Maze

What triggered Christy’s loss of housing later in life was the challenge of recovering from a surgery that propelled her into cycles of alcohol use and detox, preventing her return to work. When a promising job opportunity arose, Christy moved from the Lower Mainland to Sidney, BC. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, the job fell through, an abusive roommate kicked her out of their shared housing, the money for a hotel ran out, and Christy checked into an emergency shelter in Victoria.

It was a “perfect storm” that made abrupt landfall with the pandemic. But it had arguably brewed for much longer, beyond the horizon of public visibility, over a lifetime of accumulating social vulnerabilities.

At the age of 60, when many expect to soon retire, Christy involuntarily assumed the full-time job of homelessness. Christy is no stranger to bureaucracy, having coordinated multi-million-dollar fundraising budgets. But navigating byzantine welfare, labour, and housing systems for meagre aid would prove to be much more challenging.

“One of the things that I find frustrating about the system in general when trying to get in somewhere is that every one of them has different rules. So it just took two phone calls a day on a daily basis until finally there was a bed available, and it was like, ‘can you be here at 2:00?’ That’s how it works,” she revealed.

She reckoned that navigating service systems would be much more difficult for many other older women who lack technological access or knowledge.

 “I mean I got frustrated, but I had a laptop.”

Christy became a perpetual applicant: overqualified for many jobs, discriminated against due to age for others, and denied (twice) for disability assistance while she deciphered the CPP application process and waited on long social housing lists.

“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 it 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 sort of figure out how to maneuver.”

“I’ll say okay 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. This actually has happened to me multiple times. 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.’”

 

Invisible Barriers

Contrary to public perception, surviving homelessness – let alone leaving it – is hard work. This reality has been obscured by the ideology of “free-market” capitalism, which frames the task of meeting basic needs as an individual, rather than social, responsibility. It blames the victims of systemic disadvantage and discrimination through ascribing longstanding and entrenched structural deficiencies (e.g., an inadequate social safety net) to personal shortcomings (e.g., substance use, “laziness”). It shames usage of social programs and services, which are themselves often attached to restrictive, disciplinary, and disempowering conditions as well. When people are de-humanized, their human rights, including the right to housing, go unrecognized. These attitudes are engrained institutionally, interpersonally, and internally. Pervasive stigma and discrimination, both experienced and anticipated, alienated Christy even from those closest to her.

“I had two friends that were like 30 plus year friends and they both dumped me because I was an alcoholic – one by text and the other by email. Nice.”

She added, “I found myself just being embarrassed about being homeless and still using alcohol so I was not in touch with people. Even my family.”

For someone as independent as Christy, what was just as damaging as the loss of social connection was the loss of that of her identity as a self-sufficient woman.

“I never want to impose on anyone ever and believe myself to be self-sufficient and so I don’t think it occurred to me to prevail on the kindness of somebody else to take me in,” she said. “I don’t think that even occurred to me because I just thought, ‘okay, well, I’m gonna get an apartment and a job and all of that,’ and of course that didn’t happen.”

The straightforward path to success, driven by personal industriousness alone and unencumbered by social barriers, is as mythical as consumer “freedom” in an unaffordable housing market. It was not the reality even for someone as self-reliant as Christy, who internalized the stigma that was attached to her deviance from this trajectory.

She admitted, “I was just mortified. There’s lots of people in my life that don’t know I’m homeless, don’t know I’m an alcoholic and don’t know I had a DUI and I’ve been charged criminally with it. Lots of people don’t know that. The DUI is embarrassing. I was literally just sitting in my car with my keys around my neck not driving, but you can get charged for that.”

This incident happened when Christy sought refuge in her car to get away from an abusive roommate who had vindictively called the police. With the DUI and the inability to access her main mode of transportation, Christy lost her license to routine, privacy, leisure, to the driver’s seat of her own life.

“I got into the habit of going to the McDonald’s drive-thru every morning and getting a coffee and sitting in my car listening to the radio for a couple of hours,” she recalled.

“It’s like it’s my safe place. I used to listen to my favourite CDs too. It’s been sort of a haven for me, as messed up as it is. So it’s gonna be pretty hard to not have it. I won’t be able to drive anywhere which is awful. It’ll restrict me quite a lot. In a way it does represent freedom for me.”

Soon after, she had little choice but to move away from Sidney to Victoria in search of employment and affordable housing, and ended up in environments that were no more hospitable. In losing access to her vehicle, Christy was dispossessed of her safe space under auspices of “public safety,” as often happens with police encounters. Systems of marginalization that punish the victim also diminish their ability to leave the adverse circumstances in which they find themselves. People in need are penalized not only by law enforcement, but also by social services that are supposed to support them.

Existing social supports have been largely inadequate for guiding people out of homelessness, many of whom become further indentured within unsuitable housing services and environments.

Christy, for instance, was denied a subsidized apartment in a regional Housing First program that deemed her two months of sobriety insufficient. Ironically, her history of alcohol use was initially exacerbated by the distress of staying in emergency and transitional housing facilities.

 

“I was literally afraid for my life”

The shelter system was “a huge culture shock” to Christy, who had no prior experience of homelessness. As with most people entering the shelter system, she began in a “low-barrier” emergency shelter that is open to everyone. While these environments are supposedly universal, they are frequently dangerous or unsuitable for people with specific needs for their safety and wellbeing, including women and older adults.

“I pretty much stayed in my little cubicle for a month and slept a lot because I was too afraid to interact. It was depressing.”

The “low-barrier” approach appeared to be quite literal, with nothing but three cubicle walls and a shower curtain separating Christy from the chaos. She could hardly venture out to the showers, where some people slept instead of in their cubicles. These enclosures, they probably figured, were hardly distinguishable anyway. People perceived to be vulnerable, such as older women, are frequently targeted in instances of exploitation, harassment, theft, and violence. Christy had her wallet stolen, had her underwear stolen, had experienced unwelcome sexual advances, and had panic attacks, all while having no one she felt she could turn to.

“I was literally afraid for my life,” Christy disclosed. “These are not fun places and it absolutely, without a doubt, had an impact on me mentally.”

Pre-existing issues within the shelter system were exacerbated during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when people using shelters, including Christy, were frustrated and confused with new and evolving regulations. Meanwhile, shelters themselves were largely unprepared and under-resourced to deal with these rapid changes.

Initially, Christy coped by drinking to “numb out everything that was going on.” But soon, she found that this coping mechanism was inadequate to deal with the stresses of the shelter environment. When her desire to leave became stronger than her desire to drink, she stopped her reliance on alcohol for a period of time. This was another thing that she had to achieve on her own, since the substance use programs available to Christy had also been unsuitable and unsafe for her.

“I’d just had enough I guess and needed to move on from that. There’s such a feeling of despair in these shelters and I just didn’t want to be there,” she said.

But substance use, similar to housing insecurity, was a challenge that she could not fully overcome in the absence of adequate social supports.

 

Creativity in the face of Adversity

Always resourceful, Christy managed the remainder of her stay in shelters by strategically suppressing or emphasizing aspects of her identity to draw less attention to herself. For example, she disguised herself inside the shelter, wearing a “black skull cap and hoody,” and swapping her “nice briefcase” for a Save-on-Foods bag. In her cubicle, she read and learned to knit, stitching from separate threads a unified whole that had been fractured by the trauma of homelessness.

“That’s all I could do and that’s kind of what got me through it.”

When she “couldn’t take it anymore,” Christy spent several weeks calling “different places with “different rules,” then proceeded to move into one shelter after another. This is a reality of the shelter system, in which many people are shuffled around as they wait for years, and in some cases over a decade, to secure long-term affordable housing. Oftentimes, they struggle to navigate a fragmented system that also exhausts their capacities to do so. The pandemic triggered an additional influx of people onto housing waitlists, which typically prioritize families with children and people who are unsheltered and chronically homeless. Christy, who entered into homelessness later in her life, did not fit into those categories. As an older woman, she could not afford to work her way through the system and wait indefinitely for a permanent home.

Even as Christy cycled through temporary spaces, she persisted in her search for employment. After staying in a transitional housing facility where she had a higher degree of privacy and stability, she returned to market rental housing and secured a job working for a health charity. But these journeys rarely reach tidy conclusions, given the precarious nature of housing and labour markets. Christy knew this not only from lived experience as a someone using emergency shelter, but also from her frontline position as a peer support worker who helped to house people from park encampments during the pandemic.

 

Broken Systems

When Christy sought assistance with paperwork, she recalled, “not one person has been able to tell me where to go to get free financial advice. So I’ve had to figure this out myself.” Even though she liaised with different agencies to serve people in encampments for her peer support work, she found that “the system doesn’t talk to each other.” Speaking as a service provider and recipient, Christy reflected, “it just feels like nobody knows what the other is doing and there’s no kind of holistic approach or place to go.”

Understanding the frustration of navigating these systems from doing so herself, she brought a humane lens forged through lived experience in her peer support work. This is a perspective that she believed to be missing from housing services.

She explained, “Very often the workers in these places don’t have a lot of lived experience. So there’s not a lot of support or help. I mean, they’ll tell you, you know, ‘have you filled out a BC Housing application?’ and that’s the extent to which they go to help.”

When help was available, it was not the kind she needed, and was often offered in paternalistic ways, even with the best intentions.

“One of the young guys who’s a worker asked me what I was up to this weekend and I told him, ‘I’m just filling out some paperwork. He said, ‘do you need help with that?’ I’m like, ‘no, thank you,’ and I’m thinking in my head… ‘I’ve done multi-millionaire budgets and stuff like that…’” she recalled, acknowledging, “it was very kind of him and I appreciated the offer.”

She also spoke to the need for a person-centred approach that attends to the specific needs, histories, and circumstances of the people using the services.

“The way workers approach this kind of work is that everybody needs help with stuff without individualizing who the person is and what their background is,” she said. “They’re coming from a good place, but it’s different than the stuff that I’ve lived through, for example, or you know, my next-door neighbour.”

She added, “Everybody’s different, so you learn what’s the best way to communicate with an individual. [It’s about] really understanding where they’re coming and what they need in that moment and in general.”

 

A Heroine

The homelessness system is fraught with paradox. It establishes structural barriers that exclude, and shower curtains as walls that expose. It offers scarce support when it is requested and intervenes when it is unnecessary. It conflates individuals under the same roof while simultaneously fragmenting the various housing and wraparound services they need. It preaches personal responsibility, yet fractures personal identity.

In shelters, Christy changed her appearance to “fit in,” and also adopted the pseudonym of “Christine,” perhaps to compartmentalize her identity. Contrary to convention, Christy’s real name is not an abbreviation but a full form that reflects her Scottish heritage. It is familiar yet non-conforming, much like Christy herself, who subverts dominant narratives about who can become homeless. As a former media professional, another one of her many roles, she recognizes that her experience is not the “sexy story” that garners voyeuristic public sympathy.

“The perception is that everyone [who is homeless] has lived on the street and that is not true,” said Christy.

Surviving homelessness is a Homeric feat, whether or not its heroes – and heroines – emerge from its arduous and serpentine paths. After fighting to exit homelessness on her own, Christy later lost her job in a labour market that did not appear to value older women’s wealth of knowledge and talents. And once again, she lost her housing in an unaffordable housing market that prioritizes commodification over compassion. Even for those who are able to resolve their own homelessness like Christy, older women’s housing, livelihoods, and lives themselves often remain precarious.

Christy took her own life shortly after receiving an eviction notice. Perhaps she could not fathom returning to shelters in which she felt dehumanized; perhaps shelter spaces were unavailable altogether; perhaps she felt too ashamed to ask for help. One can only speculate about the reasons behind Christy’s decision, but what is clear is that her remaining options were constrained by a system that seemed to create more barriers than opportunities to securing a permanent home. Her final act of control over her life was, arguably, to end it before falling back into homelessness. In life and in death, Christy always resisted stereotypes of homelessness and insisted upon respecting each person’s diversity and dignity. We share her story so that we can do the same for Christy.

 

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the Principal Investigator of our research project, Dr. Denise Cloutier, our project coordinator, Ruth Kampen, and the housing advocate Nicole Chaland for helping us to craft this piece. The research project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institute for Health Research, and Vancouver Island Health.

 

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