Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A homeless woman's journey from the streets to security

As the host of a feminist radio program, I recently had the opportunity to interview a formerly homeless woman who now lives in a social housing complex built especially for women like her. Cindy is an aboriginal woman who has lived homeless on-and-off for a large part of her adult life.

Cindy’s long, stringy hair is black and grey with split ends. She’s a short woman with big brown eyes and a lifetime worth of wrinkles, although I’d estimate she’s only in her late 40’s. She looks like someone who’s lived a hard life.

Like so many homeless women, Cindy became homeless after fleeing abusive relationship. She stayed with her abuser for years despite the fact that she knew he was no good. She relied on him for income and was terrified to report his abuse to the police, for fear he’d be jailed for a night and then return to her angrier and more violent. “You can ask me or any other homeless woman why we stayed with those men” she said, “and we’ll all tell you that we’d rather be in a relationship with an abusive man than be out there on the streets by ourselves.”

She was stuck between two terrible options: stay and be abused, or leave and be homeless. Eventually things became so bad she had no choice but to run away and the price she paid was living on the streets of Calgary. Homeless women face a myriad of challenges above and beyond the struggles experienced by homeless men.  There are few shelters exclusively for women and mixed shelters are an uninviting place. Homeless women are at great risk for sexual and physical violence – both on the street and within a homeless shelter.

Matters are further complicated and challenging if the woman has children. She doesn’t want them in a shelter environment and she certainly doesn’t want the authorities to notice them for fear the children will be apprehended. That’s a big reason why so many women stay in abusive relationships, or live as “concealed homeless” people – those who sleep on a friend’s couch, in a family member’s basement or live out of a car.

Cindy’s life changed when she decided to join a program at the YWCA that aimed to teach homeless women life skills. “I took every program they offered” she said, “I wanted them to see that I really wanted things to change.” She dedicated herself to the program and was eventually chosen as a candidate for The Ophelia – an apartment complex with subsidized rent for homeless women trying to get their lives back together.

Cindy and 14 other women live independently at The Ophelia, although the YWCA is there to provide support when they need it. Time and time again, Cindy told me that although having a safe place to live is incredibly important, it’s the ongoing support from the YWCA staff that’s making this a successful transition for her. “They call me and make sure I’m OK, ask me if I need anything. I would have lost that apartment twice already if they weren’t there to support me.”

Her statement reinforces the fact that you can’t put homeless people in a housing complex and leave them alone expecting them to thrive. Ongoing support is needed to deal with the mental and emotional issues that need to be addressed. “Now I have the time and space to deal with all kinds of stuff I haven’t over the years” says Cindy. “I’ve been given a chance to work on myself. I’ve never had time to focus on me before. I am so grateful.”

The YWCA’s program is built on the “Housing First” model, where homeless people are first placed into safe, appropriate housing and then being to work on the issues that caused them to become homeless. In Cindy’s own words, she is now trying to “learn how to be a straight person.” Her goals include getting a job and eventually moving out of The Ophelia so that another deserving woman can take her place.

Cindy is an incredible survivor, and a great example of how lives can change with little bit of support and security. 

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