Narrated by: Jessica Stepushyn
Jessica is a facilitator and creative for Face 2 Face with Stigma who also has lived experience of mental illness and invisible disabilities.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Photo by StockSnap from Pixabay