Homelessness—Not Good for My Mental Health

Aaron Zacharias

Web-only article from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1)

stock photoI had already been through more than my share of trauma, beginning with an abusive childhood. But it wasn't until I became homeless in the late '90s, at the age of 42, that I developed a paralyzing sense of despair and hopelessness that led to several years of prolonged anxiety and depression.

In the late '70s, when I was in my early 20s, I had been unable to finish my post-secondary education because of financial problems and stress - guaranteeing me a lifetime of low-wage employment. For nearly 20 years I was able to coast along, most of the time working as a home support worker earning subsistence wages.

But in the 1990s, our federal and provincial governments began to slash social programs and restructure the economy to keep the World Bank happy - it and its multinational cohorts and cronies were exploiting workers in poorer countries, with disastrous effects on the lives and livelihoods of the working poor, including here in Canada. Unemployment Insurance was renamed, ridiculously, Employment Insurance and became difficult to qualify for. Getting social assistance became a humiliating nightmare.

Before I knew it, I was unable to pay my rent. I had quit my job; funding cutbacks had affected home support services and they wouldn't give me more than seven hours of work a week. At that time, home support was the only work I knew. I couldn't get unemployment insurance because the stricter qualifications made it impossible for me - and many other Canadians - to qualify. Welfare only covered my rent ($500 per month for a bachelor apartment) and, with reduced rates, longer waiting times and jaded and uncompassionate financial aid workers, was extremely frustrating to deal with.

The severe economic pressure I was living under, along with unresolved issues of childhood abuse, precipitated several breakdowns. I wasn't thinking clearly and wasn't making responsible decisions about my life. And the cost of housing was rising much faster than most people's incomes . . .

I ended up homeless.

From couch surfing to renter's hell

I was one of the fortunate homeless - I was able to couch surf the whole 10 and a half months. My father, who lived on BC's Sunshine Coast, put me up for half of each week. Our relationship has always been fraught with unresolved issues and that's all he could stand. The rest of the week I stayed in Vancouver with various friends.

Couch surfing worked for a while, but people soon began to get sick of me. I was paying my way, but they made it clear they wanted to move on with their lives and, since I wasn't doing this for myself, I was too much of an emotional burden for them. My father became increasingly hostile. And other people started to exploit my vulnerability. I was easily victimized because of terrible self-esteem, stemming from the childhood abuse. Being dependent on the kindness of others, it was like the proverbial wounded chicken getting attacked by the others in its flock.

Being homeless and constantly distressed made stable employment impossible. Because of negative experiences in the past, I was afraid to try to get back in the welfare system. I had small earnings from house cleaning for an elderly lady I was friends with. I also had a little income from sales of my paintings. Even though I had to give up nearly all my possessions when I became homeless, I managed to save my paints and brushes. I was able to continue painting and marketing my art a little while staying with my father. And various people seemed happy to 'store' my paintings on their walls - as long as I didn't have to stay in their homes as well.

Eventually, my father asked me to leave. The people I was staying with in Vancouver - a bunch of dysfunctional and extremely burned-out punk rockers - also turned on me. Certain alliances were made and I got 'voted off the island.'

Luckily, that same day a friend connected me with a friend of hers who had room in her place. I stayed there for two weeks while looking for another place to live and finally succeeded in getting on social assistance.

I found a room in a shared apartment with 'two' other people, including the acting 'landlord,' who was quite a control freak. Not only were there three of us in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, but three days a week the landlord's mother and young son were there. Day and night, there were comings and goings of the landlord's various acquaintances. It didn't feel like a healthy situation: among other things, the landlord insisted on keeping his cat's litter box in the bathtub. He also accused me of having a problem with noise. He was quite right, as heightened reactions to noise was one of my symptoms. But he was also very noisy - vacuuming the apartment at 2:00 a.m., for instance. I moved out after a year.

Next I moved into a small room in a house run by a slumlord from a Third World country. My four housemates all seemed to have dysfunctional lives, with psychiatric and drug-related problems. After nearly two years, a young drug addict with a propensity for sexually acting out moved into the room next to mine. He had been aggressive and threatening toward one of our housemates, and there was an escalating, unspoken tension between us that seemed like it could explode into something very ugly. I began to feel that my life was in danger.

Candela Place - a saving grace

Fortunately, I had been networking with Judy Graves, who coordinates the Tenant Assistance Program for the City of Vancouver. A friend who had helped me find one of the shared living situations had introduced me to Judy in 1999, and then Judy and I began running into each other all over Vancouver. One day, Judy asked me about my housing situation . . . and then got me onto a number of wait-lists. She also gave me an excellent reference.

I have now been living in Candela Place for almost five years, and I've been employed and off social assistance for the past four and a half years. When I moved into Candela Place, I began seeing a psychiatrist, who for four years helped me work through my traumatic stress issues, without putting me on medications. I am now working full-time as a peer support worker with Vancouver Community Mental Health Services

Thanks to safe, secure and affordable housing, my life is finally in a good place - I no longer feel as though I have to squander all my energies at merely coping and surviving. My apartment is small, but it is comfortable, and I'm able to carry on with my painting and to market my art from there. And I've developed a new network of good, reliable friends - this is a particular boon, since I don't have a supportive family.

Now that I'm no longer in a panic about having to survive each day, I can actually enjoy things - and with a depth of pleasure I never thought would be waiting for me at this stage of my life (I am in my early fifties). I'm still a working artist, and I'll be travelling to Costa Rica this spring, where I'll be painting murals in a bed and breakfast.

 
About the author

Aaron has been a peer support worker with Vancouver Community Mental Health Services for the past three years. He is very concerned with homelessness and poverty-related issues. Aaron is also a visual artist, and his paintings can be viewed on his website at thesearepaintings.googlepages.com

 

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