You might say I’m an expert on housing insecurity. My first experience of housing insecurity was when I was escaping my abusive husband. At 25, I took my two children and fled to a women’s transition house.
My second experience came later in life, in my mid-30s. By then, I had a diploma in Computer Science, spoke four languages, and had single-handedly raised two children on my own, with no child support or outside assistance. I was living in California, working for a Silicon Valley software company, earning $75,000 a year. We lived very well there for four years.
Then my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I quit my job, and my daughter and I left everything we had in California and moved back to Ottawa to look after her.
I'd made living arrangements with a longtime friend. At first, everything was fine. Then my friend would have fits of rage, sometimes directed at me, other times at her daughter. Finally, after three months, she kept my rent in advance and kicked both me and my daughter out, literally into the cold. I had a 103-degree fever, no car, and we were in the middle of the country-side in the dead of winter.
"I don't feel comfortable with you staying here"
Since then, my daughter and I have experienced homelessness multiple times. The worst was in Langford. I still had my car then, and a minimum wage job at Staples.
We lived in Metchosin, on a property where the owner rented small cabins. This environment became increasingly unstable, and threatening, too. I left that house a few months later when I'd secured a few days at my daughter's friend's house in Langford. Or so I thought. The day after we moved in, I found all our bags, boxes and belongings by the front door, my daughter crying on the doorstep, and the mother standing with her arms crossed. She said: "I don't feel comfortable with you staying here. You need to leave."
We were in a vacant Walmart parking lot. It was dark and raining. From the payphone I could see my daughter crying in the front seat of my car, holding our Jack Russell terrier tight. We slept in a car for the first time in both our lives that night.
Two months later, while living in a homeless shelter with my daughter, I got a job at IBM making $33 an hour, and we got an apartment.
A few years later, I developed health problems and became unemployed. Our family’s source of income became income assistance.
In December 2014, I invited a homeless man to stay at my home for the holidays. I felt good about providing someone with shelter at Christmas time. It was what my parents might have done. I had a long history of rescuing: as a child, it was squirrels, cats, dogs, hamsters, birds. When I became an adult, I took in teens fleeing their abusive parents, and people who just didn't have a place to sleep.
At first, I worried a bit about my personal safety, my meager belongings. But by week one all my worries disappeared: My TV was still in place, I hadn't been robbed or assaulted; in fact he helped with household chores and dishes, and was extremely respectful of me and my home.
Still, no good deed goes unpunished, and this time I would pay a high price for saving someone, by becoming homeless myself.
"He looks homeless"
After a while, my once-friendly neighbours stopped talking to me. The young lady downstairs told me point-blank that she wasn’t comfortable coming over to play cards anymore. I asked her why. She said it was my new roommate. He made her uncomfortable, scared. She said: “He looks homeless”. The nice couple down the hall hurried away from me when once they’d stop to chat.
These and other neighbours complained to my landlord about me having a male staying at my home. I received a Letter of Warning stating that if my “visitor” didn't leave in a few days, I would be evicted. By then, my “visitor” had officially become my roommate. I couldn’t ask him to leave after he’d already paid half my rent.
After this, the harassment began. A variety of “maintenance men” would knock on my door, at least once a day, usually first thing in the morning. They’d wave a paper in my face, ask me to sign it and give me a copy: “Unit Inspection”. I was so stressed that I gave my notice to end tenancy.
“Divide and conquer”
A family member offered me a room to stay in until I could find a new home. I was to pay rent and contribute to groceries and utilities. Because I was on disability, because I didn’t have a job, I was treated badly by my family member, someone who’d known me all my life. I was told I was not welcome. I was accused of eating food. I was insulted. After about a week, I was evicted without notice. Now I was truly homeless, truly alone and vulnerable.
Would I need to get a tent? Where would I put it? Where would I store my belongings? I’d never had to sleep in the rough before. I was scared, heartbroken.
I went to a women’s shelter. The shelter staff were the only people in recent years to actually help me get back on my feet, encouraging me to find an apartment (their maximum stay is 30 days), and keeping me well-fed. For the first time in five years, I was not worried about where my next meal was coming from.
Still, 30 days is not much time to find an apartment for under the income assistance ministry’s $375 shelter allowance. I faced a lot of discrimination because I wasn’t employed. By some miracle, I was able to find a bachelor suite. Other women at the shelter weren’t so lucky. Faced with the impossible task of finding a home within the ministry’s allocated rental budget, many went back to their abusive partners.
When I finally did get housed, an income assistance worker called my landlord to check up on me. The next thing I knew there was a series of loud knocks on my door. The apartment manager entered my home, without the requisite 24-hour notice, barging past me as though she were expecting to find a meth lab. She said she'd had two phone calls that day from the ministry. She didn’t go to the trouble of masking her contempt for people on income assistance. She made her opinion of “those people” quite clear. I felt the now-familiar sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Conclusion: I am still insecurely housed, and so are hundreds of thousands of others in BC, whether working or not.