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 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.”
 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.
[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 Services, 71(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
[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 Psychology, 29(2), 246-255.