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.
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.