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Mental Health

My Woman Under Plastic

Claire Hurley

Reprinted from "Housing and Homelessness" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (1), pp. 19-20

One December Sunday in 1995 I spoke to a shopping cart surrounded by black plastic in a doorway behind a Kitsilano supermarket.

“Hi, I’m Claire. And how are you doing?” I asked.

A pair of dark eyes emerged. “I’m okay. You don’t need to bother about me,” said my new acquaintance.

We chatted about the weather (cold). I asked her if she had eaten. She told me she gets hot water at a nearby convenience store each morning for her tea. As I bid her goodbye, she told me her name was Kathy, and I told her I’d be back to see her again.

When you think of the homeless, of what—of whom—do you think? Someone stumbling down Cordova Street or sprawled on East Hastings? The panhandler who last approached you? Or the bundled-up person sleeping in your local library? What about the person sleeping in the garage in Kerrisdale? Is your thinking filled with stereotypes? Do you think about the homeless at all? Well, let me share my glimpse into Kathy’s reality of homelessness.

A phone call to emergency housing services that Sunday evening began my education of what it’s like to try and find shelter in this huge city of great wealth and astonishing poverty. Eight calls later, I reached Dale at Triage Emergency Services & Care Society. He promised to hold a bed for her. So back I went to that dank doorway. “Oh no, it’s too far. I’m better off here,” was her immediate response when I told her about the vacancy at Triage.

When I called Dale back to free up the bed, he asked what the first thing she had said was. He quickly agreed that it was far. And he pointed out that the quiet, perhaps dull West Side was much safer than the mean streets of the Downtown Eastside, where the Triage shelter is located: “She could stay here one night. But I’d have to turn her out the next day, and she’s not safe down here.”

Besides, Kathy wouldn’t give me her last name. That refusal—an expression of her right to privacy—trapped her in a gaping crater in the system. Not registered with the (then) Ministry of Social Services? Too bad; no bed for you. Shelters are funded by various ministries, foundations and sometimes the federal government. But registry with social services seemed to be essential; without it, the shelters don’t get funding for the use of that bed. So I was unable to land her a shelter bed.

Three years ago—after she first arrived in Vancouver seeking work, with enough money to last just two weeks—Kathy ended up in a shelter on the Downtown Eastside for a weekend. At the time, the shelter’s policy was that people could only stay there for one weekend. So, boom! She was out on the street. And as happens all too often with women forced to sleep in the streets, Kathy was raped.

I called a Vancouver city councillor about the homelessness issue, in December when the torrents of rain made outdoor sleeping impossible. He did make comments to city council, but the seemingly feigned concern of council members—seen by thousands of viewers, as Rogers Cable graciously rebroadcast this council meeting on several occasions—failed to spark any immediate action.

I wonder what routes city councillors travel. Perhaps they wear blinders. Alert politicians in San Diego, a city with a climate much milder than ours, had, since 1991, opened the municipal gym in Balboa Park for the homeless in inclement weather. At Hastings Park in Vancouver, the BC Building, which meets fire code and health standards, had no bookings that December. And the schools around the city were heading into Christmas break, when their gyms would be unused.

For five days I stopped by to check on Kathy, who was still in the supermarket doorway. One morning I found her trying to dry her clothing in the faint sunshine. On another occasion we tied her possessions to her shopping cart and hobbled over to the convenience store. We hobbled, because Kathy had broken her ankle. When she went to see her worker way over near Oak Street, she was told she had no medical benefits, so the ankle has never healed properly. As we approached the store, a woman gave Kathy half a sandwich. Then I sat outside, guarding her possessions, as she sought some hot water. Passersby stared at the collection of stuff, then at me. When I smiled, they were stymied and stunned.

One night when snow was forecast, I phoned Lookout and convents and Triage and St. James Social Services and counsellor friends and my church—no one had space in their shelter for this one person. And Kathy is just one of what may be thousands of people living outdoors.

My neighbour donated some clothing and cash to help. I had learned that Kathy had literally just two cents left to her name. She had last picked up a social assistance cheque in November, only to find it had been slashed in half. That’s half of the $211 that was her food and basic essentials allowance for a month. Kathy was supposed to return mid-month, but her painful ankle and foot made walking a hopeless contest and pushing that shopping cart was a monumental task. The walk from Arbutus to Oak Street, a walk of less than five kilometres, took her two days

One day I phoned a nearby social services office and explained the situation to a worker. I asked for an electronic transfer of her records to his office. He refused. I guess my request was against the rules. When he said, “She can walk,” I wanted to say, “How do we spell callous, boys and girls?”

The next day Kathy and I visited my doctor at his drop-in clinic in Kerrisdale. She agreed to the visit, I think, because I kept telling her “he’s 38 and cute.” When the doctor ordered X-rays of her ankle and foot, he asked me to call her worker at social services about medical coverage. He told me to say that I was her “advocate.”

Goodness me—what a difference an “advocate” can make. I was certainly impressed with the speed and efficiency of the social services office! When we arrived we were seen right away by a smiling, concerned worker who proved to be most helpful. The worker produced the needed medical coverage, reviewed Kathy’s classification, and off we went for those X-rays. By the time we returned, this caring person had added extended medical benefits so glasses broken months ago could be replaced. And she had found Kathy a shelter, thanks to the Salvation Army. This may be a good news story after all!

As you sit there complacent and read my wee tome, contemplate this: how many pay cheques can you lose before you’re out on the street?

The homeless are people who need our attention right now. You might be wondering how you can help. Well, you can raise hell about the loss of subsidized housing in False Creek after the Olympics, petition and phone politicians, give money to Triage and Lookout, donate food to shelters, phone government and city agencies, and try to find useable space. Don’t take no for an answer. Get the churches involved. Make helping others your mantra.

And keep in mind that, someday, you and I may be homeless too.

About the author

Claire is a Delta journalist, who has a master's degree in counselling psychology


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