This blog captures the story of Maria, who is a peer support worker with lived experience of homelessness. Her story highlights both the unique vulnerabilities and strengths of older women who have been frequently overlooked by housing service providers and policymakers.
Maria’s Experience of Homelessness:
Maria uses the analogy of a baseball game to share her story of exiting homelessness against all odds.
“Unfortunately, sometimes life throws you the curve ball and it’s either you play, and you hit it, or you just let it strike you out. I’ve always been a player, a team player,” she says.
Maria initially became homeless in part due to the end of a relationship, which pushed her into an unaffordable housing market. To stay housed, she entered relationships that were sometimes beneficial, but more often exploitative, and in some cases, abusive.
After ending these relationships, Maria turned to life on the streets, which offered her more control than she previously had. Even as an older woman, Maria opted to ‘sleep rough’ in the margins of the city where she could avoid the gaze of the public. She avoided using shelters as she found them to be dehumanizing and disciplinary.
“People don’t like to be under any type of rule. Nobody does. Nobody likes to be told what they’re gonna do or what they can and can’t do, what time to go to bed. That’s just a given.” - Maria
Experiencing homelessness as a woman often means avoiding violence “behind closed doors” on the one hand, and public scrutiny on the other. The margins of error are thin, the decisions are split-second, and the stakes are life-threatening. Spectators who judge their performance come and go at will, but those on the “field” remain trapped in cycles of precarity and violence and expendable in the arena of political theatre.
In Maria’s opinion, the rules of the proverbial baseball game are rigged.
“There was always an obstacle being thrown and you didn’t realize what was coming out of left field. Then all of a sudden, you’re in a tailspin and before you know it, you don’t even know how you got there.” - Maria
For many marginalized groups including older women, homelessness is typically a result of institutional disadvantages rather than perceived personal shortcomings (e.g., “laziness”) for which homeless individuals are often blamed.
Maria points to upstream policies, saying “a lot of people…never wanted to be on the street but unfortunately, that happened whether it was losing your job, whether you got EI and EI ran out and then you got nothing. If you get [social or disability assistance] you still have not enough to live on. You definitely do not have enough to rent a house for sure…They haven’t changed that rental [allowance] in over 20 years.” - Maria
Over the course of their lives, women accumulate numerous social inequities including unpaid caregiving responsibilities, diminished earnings potential, and gender-based violence. In unaffordable housing markets across Canada, many women are left with little choice but to remain housed with an abuser, experience homeless in ways that are often invisible (e.g., couch-surfing), or cycle through temporary housing services.
General (co-ed) emergency and transitional housing services are typically unsafe and unsuitable for women, especially older individuals who are especially vulnerable to theft, harassment, and assault; and who may experience social isolation, a lack of autonomy, and difficulty navigating service environments.
Maria argues that homelessness, especially for those who are most vulnerable, is a political choice.
“We have enough for everyone in this world to eat a meal, to have clean water. I mean, come on you can’t tell me that can’t happen. Unfortunately, we have our politics, our politicians, and all of these other people making choices for us.” - Maria
The right to a dignified life, then, is constrained and realized by choice – something that has been denied to unstably housed women.
“At least give them an option. Give them a choice and again if you give people choices rather than…ultimatums, there’s a huge difference in the outcome,” - Maria
Maria made the best of the ultimatums handed to her in life.
“I had to make a choice of whether I, plain and simple, wanted to live or die, whether I wanted to fail or succeed. It’s all about choices and everyone has that power – everyone” - Maria
How Maria Used Her Experience to Help Others:
Maria did not choose to become homeless, but she did choose to receive care from, and in turn provide it to, people who have fallen through the cracks of social service systems. Her journey out of homelessness began with an expression of vulnerability, which empowered her to re-build her life with the support of others.
“I was becoming vulnerable, and I’ve never let people see that side of me because it was a sign of weakness,” she admits. “But I started to show my emotions were coming out. I couldn’t control them. When there was somebody that was actually nice that would ask me something and I would break down. I finally started doing that and what I found out when I started doing that I started getting help.” - Maria
Since exiting homelessness, Maria has become a support worker at a homeless service organization. In this role, she has been able to help others to find their inner strength by sharing how she found her own.
“If I can give some of the tools that I use or share them then that’s what I’m going to do, because once they see the results for themselves, that to me gives them that boost; that self-motivation, empowerment, self-esteem, self-worth, the whole nine yards.” – Maria
She goes on to explain that people often feel more comfortable sharing their stories with someone who has a shared experience.
“I hit a home run just about, not quite. But you know what I’m trying to say – I’ve gone from first base to third. It’s like I’m going forward and hopefully one day we’ll get to the home plate…I really was fortunate that the people stood up to the plate and helped me.” - Maria
Maria’s journey back to a place that she can call “home” has not been linear, but rather an ongoing process.
“I still have the desire to be a functioning person in society, to be someone that might be able to make a difference to help people, and if that’s what my lot in life is I say that’s great. It’s helping somebody and it’s helping me as well... It’s what makes me function and live with myself, that I’ve seen improvements in people.” - Maria
She reckons that, even on an uneven playing field, “it’s a win-win all around.”
Biography and Acknowledgements:
Audrey is a PhD candidate in the University of Victoria’s Department of Geography. She serves as a research associate on a study entitled “Solutions to Health and Homelessness for Older Women” (SHHOW). She collaborated with Maria, who is a community co-researcher with lived experience on the SHHOW project, to write this story. This story was also crafted with help of SHHOW team members Dr. Denise Cloutier (Principal Investigator), Ruth Kampen, and Kendall Fraser. The research project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institute for Health Research, and Vancouver Island Health.