1981 to 1991
Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), p. 23
For the past year I've been working as a volunteer at a homeless shelter here in the Okanagan Valley. When I help people, I remember my own 10-year experience living on the streets of Toronto and Vancouver and in one of the many skid row hotels in Vancouver's east end. A person is considered homeless by the BC government even if you have a room.
I remember the feeling of living on the edge of society, of going round and round in a cycle of poverty and homelessness, not mixing with so-called normal people. My life seemed far removed from my earlier years as a university student in Vancouver.
Eleven years after graduating in 1970, I became ill while employed interviewing people for Gallup polls. I became jobless and homeless - and soon after ended up in the psychiatric ward at UBC Hospital because of panic attacks and schizophrenia. In subsequent years, I was treated on Vancouver General Hospital's psychiatric ward and by the Strathcona mental health team on Vancouver's east side.
Because my housing and surroundings were so substandard, I, myself, felt worthless. I developed a serious inferiority complex, withdrawing into myself. People around me experienced the same effects. Although I don't suffer from depression, homelessness caused some of my friends to sink into depression and turn to hard drugs. One day I came home and found the ambulance outside our hotel. They'd come for my friend Patrick, who lived in the room next to mine. He had overdosed (probably heroin) and later died.
I think there should be more drop-in centres and more recreational and social activities and outings. There should also be more solicitation for food donations. The homeless are always hungry.
More one-on-one counselling for psychiatric patients is needed. A friend of mine died of exposure while sleeping in an abandoned truck, with a bottle of cheap Canadian sherry by her side; she was only 30. She could have benefited from counselling. Losing my friend was the worst experience I had while being homeless in Toronto.
Homeless women have some different fears than men do. When living in hostels or poor, rough neighbourhoods, women risk being raped or beaten up. Once, a man tried to break down my door to get to me. Luckily, a neighbour intervened.
My sister-in-law in the North Okanagan helped me get off the street. In 1991 she arranged for an apartment I could afford to rent. I've lived in it ever since. It's regular market housing,† but I do receive a rent subsidy. I also have disability income, plus supplemental earnings from my volunteer employment.
I'm so thankful I have a cozy apartment, with two cats and a backyard. I no longer have to "dumpster dive" behind the Chinese grocery store in order to make a vegetable stew for my supper. And my mental health is now so good I no longer need to see a psychiatrist. Here's to having a warm and comfortable home and hearth!
About the author
Lindy is a client with Vernon Mental Health. She volunteers at the homeless shelter in Vernon