Photo by TobiasBrunner on Pixabay
For much of her life, Celeste had to be a “scrapper” in order to survive. Of the many things she’s braved – trauma behind closed doors, on the streets, and in her own mind – showing vulnerability was one of the most difficult. It was also one of the most transformational, empowering her to re-connect to a world from which she was alienated by abuse and homelessness. These days, as a peer support worker for the Umbrella Society and a co-researcher at the University of Victoria, she courageously shares her experiences with people who use housing services, and others who study them, including me.
Celeste’s story transcends the strictures of time, showing the cyclical realities of women fleeing violence, the resounding legacies of oppression, and the possibilities that yet arise in older age. Her recollections are sometimes fragmentary, interrupted by pain, but they evoke truths beyond dates, locations, and other details that belong on housing application forms. Her re-construction of a broken past is in itself a creative process of identity-making. Like a Cubist portrait, the structural ambiguity of Celeste’s story casts her multitude of selves, sentiments, and experiences, into vivid relief.
Fleeing abuse, numbing the pain
While her narrative arc resists chronology, it charts meandering pathways in and out of homelessness, through the cyclical rupture, perversion, and repair of relationships from which one derives a sense of home. Celeste’s journey into homelessness thus begins with her separation from her kids, who chose to live with their father amid her relationship with an abusive partner. This initial trauma precipitated, in rapid succession, events that culminated in her loss of housing.
“When the kids left it didn’t take me long to hit the hard drugs…it was a lot better to drink and use than it was to feel the abandonment of my children leaving. And I wouldn’t let anybody in my family into see me once this happened. I just discontinued my relationship with my family,” she says
During this time, in her most vulnerable state, the abuse escalated.
“[The abuse] got worse once the kids were gone. And then I tried to leave him and he would break into my place and he would put his lingerie that he liked me wearing or the best video he would put it in the tape recorder that he liked to watch or he would set the table with his favourite meal. Like when I walked in everything would be gone but he’d leave things letting me know that no matter what it took he was gonna get to me.”
Shortly after an attempt to leave him, her circumstances quickly deteriorated into homelessness. It was a trauma that Celeste, still reeling from the loss of her children, could hardly process.
“I got kicked out of my place because I started bringing parties there. I was using drugs there. I didn’t care about anything once my kids were gone. So it was a matter of weeks before I hit rock bottom and I lost my place,” she reveals. “So for me to get kicked out, when I got kicked out, I didn’t care. I didn’t want responsibility. I didn’t want to have any responsibility at all. I was numb. I wanted to be numb.”
“I had to get tough on the streets”
Celeste was highly adaptive even, and especially, at rock bottom. She coped with profound loss, of family, self-worth, control, safety, and shelter by forging an alternate life on the streets, with a tough persona to match. Initially, this was a mechanism for masking one type of pain with another, manifesting internalized blame in external surroundings.
She confides, “I felt like such a bad person with my kids gone. I lost a lot of time over that you know numbing myself. I really did. I thought I deserved [sleeping on the streets]. Like I felt that I deserved to wake up cold and hungry you know. I was just torturing myself is what I was doing.”
Neither the punishment nor the supposed transgression were truly of Celeste’s own doing. Rather, they ruptured in Celeste under the combined force of violence inflicted by men, residential schools, and governments, abiding by structures of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism.
She found new community on the streets, which offered some protection against the violence she endured behind closed doors.
“Then it became comfortable and new and they were safe,” says Celeste. They were convenient. They were there you know and…your family now. Come on sis and complete strangers who were adopting me into the homeless life. I still consider them my family.”
In the absence of domestic family, she built an equivalent social unit on the streets, one that is as insular as the family is nuclear. This is where she retreated to avoid judgement shame, judgement, and her past.
“I hid and you can’t be found on the street unless you want to be found. It’s a cardinal rule. You never give info away especially to family… I did everything to avoid them,” she divulges. “Because I’d found new family and friends who’d seen the bad side of me and accepted it. Whereas in this real life here there’s certain things [and behaviours] that we live by.”
Another cardinal rule, Celeste reveals, is that “you don’t talk to cops.” For they represent institutional agents of displacement and dispossession, not least to Indigenous people such as Celeste. She explains, “they’re the ones on the streets that make our life what it is you know like if they tell us we can’t sleep there we’re not gonna sleep there. We’re kicked out of a store; we gotta stay away from the store.”
Abiding by an alternative “code of ethics,” she successfully inhabited a street-entrenched existence outside of institutions that fail to protect, and more often victimize, homeless women.
“My behaviour back then was vicious and bad and I was respected and liked,” she says.
But this was born of necessity for self- and community- defence, which could only go so far in the face of pervasive violence against women.
Celeste reflects, “I felt like the real me out that there would have been beaten the way that I was portraying myself on the streets if I let myself be like this. I would have got beat up. I did anyways. I would have been raped and my stuff stolen, walked all over, and a lot of things did happen to me like that. So to say out of fear I had to get tough on the streets”
Throughout the interview, Celeste refers to her biological and “street” families interchangeably, without distinction, signalling comparable kinship with both groups. At different points in time, they have both attempted to shield Celeste from violence at the hands of her on-off abusive boyfriend, who, on the other hand, represents the corruption of familial relationships. These networks, on which women depend for survival, are a double-edged sword that by turns protects and wounds.
“My family got him away from me,” says Celeste, speaking about her street networks. “And it didn’t take me long to get back with him because he knew my routine.”
Celeste’s experiences of intimate partner violence, and of homelessness, are cyclical and synchronized. She delimits these periods not so much by chronological time, the specifics of which have become blurred, but rather a sequence of trauma sharply remembered.
“it was an off and on relationship with him until I actually broke it off and was able to leave. And so I wouldn’t give an estimate of how long that took. It probably took about a few years, 3 years, off and on with him,” she recalls. “And there was times that I’d have a place. Over the years after I started to try and get my life together and of course I got with another abusive guy.”
After several rounds of detox and stabilization, Celeste achieved sobriety for 4-5 months, during which she stayed in a recovery house awaiting supportive housing. But the death of her father triggered her return to her abuser, once again to numb the pain when housing and health systems failed to alleviate it.
“I went to my ex-boyfriend’s in my funeral clothes and I just wanted to forget the world and I relapsed,” she says. “And nobody could find me for 5 or 6 weeks.”
Isolation may have incubated Celeste’s vulnerability to abuse, substance use, and housing insecurity, but these conditions do not exist in isolation from wider systems of oppression. Going back further still, Celeste’s trauma has also cycled through generations. It has affected her since childhood, when she survived sexual abuse and upbringing in a residential school. Institutionalized injustice, such as colonialism, masks itself by blaming and further disenfranchising the victims. The internalization of such blame has further diminished access to housing for Celeste, who already faces stacked vulnerabilities related to Indigeneity, single motherhood, and poverty.
“I was still beating myself up off and on…I’d think I didn’t deserve [housing]. I was such a bad mother. I was such a bad partner. I was such a bad cooker,” she says.
Celeste is being literal, in a sense. On the streets, she coped with self-loathing by projecting it onto others and dissociating from herself.
“Doing harm to somebody else made me feel like it was me that I was beating… like I visualized myself when I was doing it yet I was doing it to myself,” she observes. “I really put myself through a lot of physical and emotional [damage].”
She adds that she was unable to break the cycle of homelessness until she developed a sense of self-worth, acknowledging, “I was up and down until I started healing myself. Then I was able to get a place and keep it. But until then I couldn’t.”
Unlike victim-blaming models of self-improvement, which often espouse individualism and personal responsibility, Celeste aspires to achieve resilience through relationality and self-forgiveness.
These differences warrant further distinction between responsibility and its frequently co-opted counterpart, empowerment. Systems of oppression, and the people who wield its power, are ultimately responsible for Celeste’s homelessness; but Celeste is powerful for navigating relational networks to survive, and even recover from, the injuries that oppressive structures have visited upon her.
Reflecting upon her decision to move from her abuser into supportive housing secured by her brother, Celeste admits, “I couldn’t do the streets. I was too old. I was too sore. I was too broken. And by then I was already getting diagnosis with my health and I was realizing that I beat my body to shit you know.”
In her acceptance of vulnerability, rather than blame; care, rather than false autonomy, lies Celeste’s strength. She is not responsible for her circumstances of homelessness, which occurred for reasons beyond her control, but she is all the more powerful for surviving it.
“Every woman out there,” she explains, “needs some form of support – some form of guidance, some form of help, some form of support. And I would say that again in all truth, because we’re women we tend to have to prove ourselves harder out there.”
“She accepted me for me”
As the severance of caring relationships thrust Celeste into homelessness, so their restoration helped to draw her out of it, beginning with her courage to leave her abuser.
“I believe it was because I wasn’t left alone,” she asserts. “I got the strength to leave him. He was a big part of my addiction. He was a big part of my on the streets. He was a big part of me not having friends or my family anymore.”
She credits her recovery to personal advocates, first her brother who connected her to Our Place (supportive housing), then three support workers from Our Place, PEERS, and Umbrella. In this network of peers, unlike in traditional treatment programs, Celeste’s wellness is a collective, rather than individual responsibility facilitated by social inclusion, rather than discipline.
“Where it started with me was Our Place because of the worker there. She made me feel so comfortable about being me. She accepted me for me whether I was an addict, whether I was drunk,” recalls Celeste. “Once I started feeling safe everything else fell into place. I found myself wanting a worker from Umbrella. Wanting to work on my addiction. Wanting to go to my doctor. Wanting to physically get well.”
When someone else believed in her, Celeste could begin to believe in herself. The challenges encountered by Celeste may be manifold, but sometimes one person can make all the difference. In addition to being a recipient of care, Celeste’s current role as a provider of care has also helped her to reckon with her past life and repair its familial bonds.
“I started feeling comfortable and acknowledging my old self even though there was a lot to deal with,” she discloses. “Doing the peer support has given me an opportunity to work on myself you know to see things that I hid or put away or didn’t want to deal with and work on it. And yet I phone my daughter. I’ll phone my other daughter. I talk to my mom. And my daughters are non judgmental”
She derived much more meaning from these relational networks than from more institutional and less personalized supports, which incongruously regimented Celeste’s otherwise fluid narration of time.
She says, “I was going to meetings like clockwork – noon and night, noon and night, noon and night. And then after a few months one day I didn’t go and I thought you know I’m okay.”
Even in safer spaces, the threat of violence still persists, its trauma dulled but never extinguished.
She recounts one harrowing encounter, “when my daughter was coming to pick me up and I [had] my suitcase and [banged] right into him. Like I open the door at Our Place and there he is and he grabs me and he’s hugging me. Oh God was that ever hard to get into that car. Oh my God.”
But family is a source of protection for Celeste, even as an idea, as a source of motivation and self-worth.
“And I kept telling myself I kept visualizing my grandkids and how far I’d come and you know what I wanted for my future and he wasn’t a part of it,” she reflects. “So I had to visualize that while he was hugging the crap out of me and yeah that was a real tester that one.”
Through referrals from Our Place and the Aboriginal Coalition, another testament to the utility of connectivity, Celeste secured subsidized housing, where she once again found her “own little family,” only this time with the freedom to adapt her surroundings to her identity, instead of the other way around.
“Now I got my own couch set and I got my own bedroom suite and I strive to work to get better. And I wanted to turn my home into something that feels like me,” she says
Celeste’s home perhaps also reflects her simultaneously aspirational and retrospective selves.
“I guess I have a lot to work on still obviously you know and just not dying and not going has made me realize that I’m able to do what I’m doing right now,” she observes. “When I’m doubting myself I have to visualize things that I’ve conquered and being alive is one of them.”
In life as in recollection, Celeste’s story is sporadic but never spare. It is not a trope of rehabilitative redemption, but rather a tribute to the resilience and revitalization of her spirit.
She remarks, “people have told me that [they’ve] seen me die and I’d come back.”
Just as trauma is cyclical, so, too, is healing. The recovery of Celeste’s self-worth, and the resurgence of her cultural identity, are inextricably linked. Colonialism took from Celeste her ancestral ties to culture, not least to land; but the process of reclaiming culture has helped to ground her sense of place and belonging – things that comprise a “home.”
“It really opened up my ancestry, my growth,” she reflects.
Celeste did not understand this significance until she had the opportunity to engage with an Indigenous worker who “contributed so much to [her] life,” as well as with other Indigenous women in a program held by the Aboriginal Coalition.
“You don’t know you need it until it’s offered,” she said. “That’s how it was with the Aboriginal Coalition. I didn’t know that I needed these walks in the wilderness and I needed to connect with Mother Earth. I didn’t realize I needed the support of them in helping me connect with my family again or connect with anything to do with my culture. I didn’t know I needed those things until I got them.”
People have different needs that are specific to their identities, that they may not be aware of due to the mainstream oppression or exclusion of these identities. Celeste’s process of self-discovery was supported by those who were willing to meet her where she was at: in situation, gender, culture, and age. Celeste continues to locate her evolving sense of self later in life, giving new meeting to the “coming-of-age” tale – once again, bending linearity.
“Some people like might know what they want and need in term[s of] a line and somebody might be like me and don’t know you need that extra support until it’s offered.”