Seeking Creature Comforts
Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay
In the spring of 2020, Jessica began working for a University of Victoria study that examines homelessness and housing insecurity in older women. In this role, she is a researcher who holds a rare combination of academic training, with a Master’s degree in anthropology, and lived experience of the topic of inquiry – obtained in that order. As an individual with disabilities who became homeless later in life, Jessica’s trajectory has not been one of upward mobility, figuratively and literally. Two decades ago, a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis ended Jessica’s career with the government and “kick-started [a cycle] in and out of homelessness and vulnerability.” 14 of these years were spent on the BC Housing registry waiting to be placed in a home that she can navigate in her walker. Stairs, it turns out, are only one of many physical, financial, social, and political barriers to appropriate housing for Jessica.
Given the challenges she has survived, one might say Jessica has nine lives, befitting her affinity to cats. Her phone periodically chimes out meows, in place of the cats she once had, which sustained her wellbeing when physical spaces and humans could not. They were her only companions in her most recent entry into homelessness, a pathway that took Jessica across borders, ferries, and streets along the Pacific Northwest, from unsuitable and unaffordable market housing to the only bed she could find during her initial days of exile, none other than in the emergency room.
Migrating into homelessness
Even in hazardous rental housing on Pender Island, which would eventually become untenable, her cats offered a sense of comfort.
“I should have avoided it in the first place cause it had this tiled screen behind it which looked sort of like the asbestos era stuff but it’s like okay kitties come and snuggle because we’re not gonna get any warmth from this thing,” she says.
Unable to find acceptable and affordable housing conditions on Pender Island, to which she would “go back in a flash if [she] could,” Jessica moved across the border in search of better housing options. There, she was robbed by someone she considered to be a friend, which forced her onto streets that she navigated back to Canada, amazingly, with her cats by her side.
After a brief stay at motel, Linda recounts, “it took me another four nights after that trying to sleep out or trying to sleep during the day so I could stay awake at night. But to collect bottles and all of that to get enough money for my cats and I to get to Canada somehow and the Anacortes ferry didn’t start for about two weeks and there was no place for me to stay down there and I wasn’t gonna last.”
The journey left Jessica in critical condition, her terminal being the emergency room at St. Paul’s Hospital – though there was no place to turn otherwise.
“And when I hit Vancouver I had pneumonia anyway and a concussion…I phoned  and the woman said there is not a shelter bed anywhere in the Lower Mainland.”
Still, the welfare of her cats remained her primary concern.
Jessica recalls, “[The 311 operator] said when was the last time you actually ate? And I said it was about four days ago cause I was coughing too and she said well if you don’t phone 911 I’m going to. And I said but I have my cats and she said don’t worry about them right now.”
The cats accompanied her to the hospital and during her stay, where they, once again, made inhospitable environments endurable.
“When I got in [the ambulance] the other [parademic] had put the cats on the gurney and the safety belts through the handle and so they were nicely tied down on the gurney,” says Jessica. So I didn’t mind so much but it was a weird experience that place.”
Wryly observant, she offers an anecdote. “There was even an assisted suicide being done in one corner of Emergency. I could never make this up because it involved crystals. It involved a turban with peacock feathers on the thing that no one ever put on. They just carried it. And then a nurse came to our door and wanted to know if I wanted to join the procession to escort this woman’s transition to her next life. I said thanks but no thanks. I said between me not being able to walk and the cats getting in and out it’s wish her well on her journey”
As mourning goes, it was the loss of her cats, perhaps even more than her loss of housing, that truly uprooted Jessica.
“They asked me if I would come to Victoria without the cats and I said no and then they ordered this medi-van thing and hauled me out anyway because they said we’re gonna release you to the street otherwise,” she recalls.
Newly resigned to placelessness, Linda responded, “yeah I don’t even know where we are anymore all the big buildings took away all the landlords that I used to use to get around Vancouver.”
For Jessica, who does not have family, her pets provided vital kinship in a world that has denied and deprived her of social support. Such is the cruelty of systems structured to punish those who are already vulnerable.
“It’s not fair to take something away from someone that it could be their best friend and not everyone has supportive family,” she says. “I mean even people who have family it’s not always supportive family and I don’t think it’s fair to take that away from people and they do. I mean hardly anywhere is pet friendly.”
A dog-eat-dog world
As an older woman with complex health needs, Jessica has experienced profound exclusion from the housing market, social policies, homelessness services, and the public at large. All of these systems privilege certain group identities, such as men, able-bodied individuals, and homeowners, at the expense of “others” in society. As it happens, the people who are valued in society are those who drive or benefit from economic exploitation, including in the housing market.
Over the past several decades, governments have perversely demolished the notion of housing as a public good essential for wellbeing, re-constructing from its rubble the prevailing conceptualization of housing as an engine for accumulating wealth.
Jessica’s itinerant journey along the coast was marked by displacement from the “big buildings” of Vancouver, Airbnbs that “took everything small right off the market” in Pender Island, and an inaccessible spectrum of private rentals in Victoria.
“The [pet friendly] building just behind the Bay it starts at $1695 a month and whenever anything starts you’re never gonna get it for that,” she says. “Budgets say you should only pay 30% of your income for housing; I say that doesn’t get you a garage in this city.”
With a monthly income of $1,358 on disability assistance, Jessica had no choice but to seek scarce and inadequate non-market housing. She entered a dehumanizing homelessness system that shuffled her around various facilities, none suitable for her safety and wellbeing. To her, they were not so much spaces of respite and healing as they were of risk and harm.
Upon arrival at Rock Bay shelter in Victoria, Jessica was greeted with demands for her to return to Vancouver due to their lack of wheelchair accessibility – a harbinger for the transient and prohibitive nature of shelter living. Her refusal led her to Arbutus shelter, a “no-barrier” environment that permitted “any behaviour…short of violence and hate speech.”
“Even [with] the violence,” reveals Linda, “they usually kick you out for two weeks or something.”
Outside, she witnessed a death from overdose and observed women sleeping with dogs during the day, fearful of nighttime streets. That they found more support in animals than in people was not lost on Jessica.
“They weren’t connected enough to be safe at night sleeping out even with the dog and I mean that dog was more than a friend – I mean it was a protector and early warning system and all of that,” she observes.
The threat of brutality, and of poor health, would become a part of her daily life. These risks collided, existentially, twice more to the emergency room.
In one instance, Jessica’s blood sugar plummeted just as a fight on premises, involving a swinging sock, rocks, broken glass, and a 2 x 4, escalated into bloodshed. This complicated the arrival of the ambulance.
She recalls, “my poor two ambulance attendants who I’m trying to push into the office said I can’t go in there.”
“But you two can and go in there,” she retorted.
All the way to the hospital, Jessica recounts, “they kept saying you can’t go back there. You just can’t go back there. And I said I have to. It’s the only place I’ve got to sleep right now. And she said we’ve never seen anything like that.”
Putting things in perspective, Jessica quipped, “well you wouldn’t because normally there’s a fight, someone is injured or something, they phone you then. You don’t see the fight from the beginning so you don’t get the whole effect of how the person that you’re fixing up how they ended up that way.”
More broadly, Jessica speaks to the failure of our public systems to redress, much less prevent, homelessness until a point of crisis.
Another time, after several seizures, before receiving medical attention, Jessica diagnosed her fellow ER patients and sometime neighbours with bemused familiarity.
“I was waiting for the neurosurgeon to come over and decide what he was going to do with me. There was a man flopping around one the floor and the man beside me said what’s wrong with him?”
“I think he’s just on heroin. He’ll stop flopping shortly,” replied Jessica, pithily. “I just recognized it from Arbutus.”
She continues, “there was one woman I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know if I should get a bucket of water and dump it over her head or what. But they changed her hair colour quite a lot to quite interesting colours.”
Preternaturally poised, Jessica dissects her chaotic surroundings with surgical precision, a capability developed by virtue of exposure and her background in anthropology.
Of her stay at Arbutus, Jessica reflects, “I have thought that would be a great place to do a participant observation study for anthropology you know.”
A cat’s cradle of policies and services
Violence does not always strike flagrantly, as in the distressing incidents that Jessica witnessed yet managed. More often, harm is inflicted invisibly, yet no less injuriously – if not even more so, given the systemic nature of oppression. It pervades policies, social services, and public attitudes that punish deviance from what is “normal,” in other words, who is privileged in society.
Not Jessica, who “[doesn’t] have trouble dealing with people” and “most behaviour,” but who encountered much more adversity in [structures physical and social] physical barriers, social stigma, and welfare services.
For all the perils of Arbutus shelter, Jessica still considered it to be “a relief” compared to her preceding stay at an emergency mat program on the floor of the First Metropolitan United church gymnasium.
“There’s gym mats that they sort of throw at you that you’re supposed to put down in your spot and you don’t get a pillow. You’re bunching up whatever clothes you have which I didn’t have very many,” she says.
It was an environment inimical to human dignity, let alone Jessica’s health as an individual with disabilities and diabetes.
“At that point I was living out of my walker. And they give you one blanket which has been disinfected since the night before and the only bathroom was totally inaccessible to me. It was down a flight of stairs and then down a hall.”
Given no choice in breakfast other than oatmeal with brown sugar, Jessica thought, “I’m going to be shot by my endocrinologist.”
When her needs weren’t ignored, they were shamed, floodlit in humiliating relief.
“They don’t open until 11 and those gym lights come on bright at 6 am and you’ve got about 5 minutes to get out of there. And you’re supposed to take your mat up to the stage where they spray it and the older ones who would come up and say really? You really think you’re gonna get that up on top of this walker?”
Jessica then cycled through a succession of shelters in addition to Arbutus, including the Scotsman, Sandy Merriman, and Portland Housing, many without suitable food options or mobility supports. It would take five years in shelters, and nearly three times that long on the BC Housing wait list, before Jessica would secure long-term housing. Although subsidized housing has provided some degree of privacy and stability to Jessica, she still struggles with the building’s poorly maintained elevator and no-pet policy, which fail to fulfill her physical and emotional requirements for a home. “My kitties [were] my family,” she says.
Jessica’s financial circumstances also remain precarious due to social policies that have also failed to support her healthcare needs. Jessica’s disability assistance income scarcely covers the cost of medical prescriptions and supplies that are excluded from her housing subsidy, unlike that for people receiving income assistance.
She discloses, “when you start adding up the things I pay for…I pay $825 for my apartment [and medical expenses]” – more than half of Jessica’s monthly income.
Such is the precarity of housing insecurity, even beyond homelessness, especially for older women whose social disadvantages have accumulated over a lifetime. The irony is that even after a career of working for the government, public programs and services did not respond in kind to Jessica. That is why she sought kindness elsewhere, not in institutions, but rather in human (and other) beings.
“I don’t have anything solid to hold onto. Yeah getting down is no problem at all. I fall really easily,” says Linda, reflecting upon her nights on the gym floor, and perhaps more generally, her vulnerability in society.
Yet she has always stood up for herself, at least figuratively, in the face of alienating stigma.
“I don’t get company all that often you know. Mind you people do think of you differently even people who have known you if they find out you spent time on the street they assume you’re using drugs. They assume you could be in the sex trade,” she says.
“Except when someone suggested that at Arbutus I said oh yes just every man’s fantasy the grandmother type leaning over her walker cause I can’t stand up straight,” she continues, always equipped with a riposte.
“You have more in common with us than you think”
Jessica always finds levity, or at least absurdity, in her situation, even at its most traumatic. Perhaps the humour dulls the pain, reducing to farce the Sisyphean experience of homelessness. Perhaps it is also an expression of humanity, something that society has consistently threatened to strip away, but that Jessica strives to see in other people. She does so with the discerning eye of an anthropologist, without the distortions of public perception.
“I don’t judge anybody’s activities unless they’ve hurt me or hurt somebody that I care about,” she says.
Jessica intersperses her story with those of others she has encountered along the way, diverse people collapsed under the demeaning label of homelessness. Among her compatriots in the no-(wo)man’s-land of shelters: a sex worker who worked 8-hour shifts while battling pneumonia; a woman whose addictions stemmed from a childhood skull fracture; a mother who gave birth in a pool before 27 medical students to obtain her son’s education funds; and a man who was displaced from his cabin of 20 years, with only enough time to take his wheelchair and cat – who won many fans, Jessica included.
She shows remarkable interest in, and empathy towards, people with whom she has crossed paths that are very different from her own. These are capabilities that the condition of homelessness has cultivated in Jessica, even as it has prevented the public from extending the same qualities to her, to the “Other.”
“Everyone has a different story,” according to Jessica, in the collective anthology of humankind. “Talk to us – you might find you have more in common with us than you think.”
On her experience of housing instability, Jessica says, “I think it’s made me more open to people. But in a lot of ways even with my anthropology I was pretty open to begin with.”
This openness, in spite of the betrayal and discrimination she has faced, is also what has enabled Jessica to receive life-preserving physical, social, and emotional support.
She credits multiple support workers who have phoned the ambulance after she suffered seizures, helped her to secure subsidized housing, and connected her to the opportunity to engage in research work.
Just as important to Jessica are “people that [she] consider[s] friends,” such as women who would look after her belongings in shelters, even leaving gifts – a behaviour as feline as one of these objects.
“The women [at Arbutus] gave me little keepsakes or other little things,” she recalls, fondly. “One or two had probably been shoplifted but one of the women found a bobble head kitty and painted it a bit and put eyeliner on and she had that sitting at the foot of my bed when I woke up one morning.”
This was an affirmation of personal identity in an environment where the risk of losing one’s belongings, and sense of belonging, is constant.
“Everyone is not a bad person,” Jessica notes. The world may be predatory, but people survive by caring for one another.
Back at St. Paul’s Hospital, Jessica shared this understanding with someone who cared for her health and dignity, a nurse. When Jessica relayed to him her wishes to remain with her cats, he responded with acceptance.
“Yeah no problem,” he said. “Do you know who our clientele is?”
“Mostly downtown Eastside,” answered Jessica.
“Right,” he assured, “we’ve had a lot weirder things in here than cats believe me. We’ve had things that would eat cats.”
“You don’t have any those currently, do you?” asked Jessica, characteristically quick-witted.
“No,” he replied.