My name is Emily Fox and I want to write a bit about what it is like to be homeless.
People think that when someone has nothing the best thing to do is to replace what they have lost and then the person should be able to rebuild their lives. If only homelessness were that easy to fix. If giving someone a home and an income could insure that they would have what they needed to prosper we would see an end to homelessness.
Unfortunately, that is not what homelessness is all about.
I was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was 28 years old. I had an eighteen-month-old child and a fairly stable lifestyle. My husband was working in a well paying job and we owned our own home. We were the typical young couple of the 1980's.
By the time I realized the full impact of that diagnosis my marriage had fallen apart. My prognosis was grim – I was chronically and incurably insane. Although we try to dress this diagnosis up a bit today, paranoid schizophrenia is not something people embrace in a loved one.
Oddly enough, when I divorced my husband he did not fight for custody of our son. Ryan was all that kept me going through those days. I lived on mother's allowance in a two-bedroom apartment that ate up all but $100 of my monthly income. The drugs I took were more costly than the income received but fortunately mother's allowance also included a drug card.
Because I was diagnosed with schizophrenia I felt this was all I deserved in life. Initially, I was angry and I fought hard to believe that I was not destined to a life of poverty and despair but after about two years I realized this was all I could expect. I gobbled up any information I could about my condition and there was nothing that suggested I would ever have anything except a life of depression, anxiety and struggle.
Once I got my head around this, I realized I had nothing to lose. Everything had all ready been lost. I spent a lot of time just trying to get through the days. The psychiatric system was horrendously soul destroying. Because no one expected me to do anything of value with my life I was excused from the daily routines of "normal" society. For a while I lived with the attitude that even the smallest accomplishment was a miracle. Getting the house cleaned was a reason to celebrate. Spending an hour free from the worry that surrounds most mental patients was an unexpected delight. Not thinking about deadlines and commitment, but rather having the time to enjoy the moment, pointed me in a different direction than others who tried desperately to fit in.
But I had a son and I did not want him to suffer because I was unwell. I knew he could be treated very badly if he started school and people found out that his mom was mentally ill. It wasn't the right motivation to rebuild a life on but it was the only motivation I could find.
I moved to a different city where the people would not know I was schizophrenic. I found work and began again and I "pretended" to be normal. I am much older now and I would like to think I am wiser and I realize that pretending to be normal is probably all that most of us ever achieve. In any event, I did all the normal things society tells us will bring happiness and value to our lives. I bought a house, put in my days at work, lived for holidays and for weekends. I even contributed to my pension plan knowing that the drugs I was taking left little hope that I would live to see retirement.
But I could not get past my experience of insanity. Psychosis is a walk into a different dimension entirely and although the drugs dull the senses and abort the emotions they do not completely remove the memory. I guess one would need a series or two of electro convulsive therapy to obliterate those memories. It was not the psychosis that haunted me. It was the treatment that I had received that had me in a constant state of fear.
I got to thinking about my mundane existence and about the sheer boredom of my life. The sheer predictability of every day and the knowledge one day following the day before it caused me to want to do something about the system. I felt that I was wasting the most precious gift I have ever been given – the gift of life. I felt that each day I succeeded in the world I failed in the opportunity to do something of value with my life
I began to give speeches about what it is like to receive mental health care in Ontario. I worked to try to shed a bit of light on how things could be better. I was offered work -mostly contract – and one contract led to another. I had a good run for awhile. The only problem with contract work is that it does not give either drug or dental coverage. My drugs alone cost more than all of my other monthly expenses combined. As long as I was able to work, I did not worry too much about the fact that I was not putting money aside. I think this is the way most of us live. We work from week to week and do not think ahead to what might happen if we couldn't find work.
And so, when the contracts ran out, I was completely unprepared for how quickly everything I worked for fell away. I mortgaged my home. I robbed Peter to pay Paul. I lived in constant fear that my son would suffer. Because my drugs were the most costly expense I had, I stopped taking them and bought myself a bit of time. I vowed that as soon as I had a job I would go back on the drugs and resume my life.
In my case, because I had worked for many years after being diagnosed with a mental illness, I was unable to access any kind of income that would allow me to receive a drug card. General welfare was not an option because I had an ex-husband who could afford to pay child support. Ontario disability pension was not an option because there was some doubt in people's minds as to why I had continued to work after being diagnosed. The fact that I had claimed mother's allowance in the past seemed to make me a suspicious type of woman. At the time, all women who chose to stay home with their children during their early years were portrayed as criminals who were trying to take advantage of the system. I honestly was not looking for a free ride – I just wanted a drug card.
I was surprised to learn that the only willing ears my story fell upon was the Children's Aid Society. They demanded that I take the drugs that had been prescribed ten years prior to my involvement with them. I wondered where these people were through all the years that I needed them. They felt a schizophrenic parent who did not take their drugs was a risk. They were very willing to hear all of my story but were not so willing to try to understand that I could not afford to take the drugs. In my opinion, the Children's Aid Society believes the same propaganda that I believed before I ended up on the streets.
Once my son was removed from my care, I must admit I had no will to survive. I should have been on top of the job searches. If I had the motivation to get back in the game I might have been able to salvage some of my possessions and prevent losing everything. But I was almost forty. No excuse really. It was just that I had lost everything at twenty-eight, rebuilt my life under the shadow of impossible odds and I knew the amount of courage and determination it takes to put even a humble existence together. I simply was not up to the challenge.
I ran on the spot for a month or two. I exhausted myself trying to come up with some sort of plan to continue my life. I failed to do so. Reality hit home long before I hit the streets. I was middle-aged and had no particular skills. I was sinking daily into more and more debt. And my son, the light of my life, was gone. All I could think about was the injustice of a world that would take a twelve-year-old child and completely destroy all that he knew.
The first time I had been forced to be without my son was when he was eighteen months old and I was put into hospital. I was in and out of care for years. I remember how difficult the whole experience was on him. Although he stayed with my parents during that time, he showed both physical and emotional signs of abandonment. All through his childhood I was keenly aware that I needed to be present in his life; I never wanted him to feel that he would just be forgotten and expected to get over his losses. Whenever I would think of him when I was locked up in hospital I would become angry about the injustice of it all. I think the anger is what got me out of the hospital. Anger is sometimes a good catalyst.
But this was the second time someone had taken away my son from my care. I didn't even have any anger. I had deep shame, embarrassment and an overwhelming fear that I had no control over anything in my life. I was part of a society that did as they please with anyone who could not pay their own way. Unless money was the focal point of your existence you lived in a vulnerable position. I always felt that what happened to my son and I when he was an infant was an injustice to us both.
Had I been able to summon even a little anger I may have been able to prevent my homelessness. But I could not summon up anything. All I could do was sink further and further into despair and lethargy. I imagined I was suffering from depression but I knew the mental health system has no answers other than medications. And medication is only for people with money. It was the fist time in my entire life that I understood I was a poor person. It was them that I truly understood what poverty is. When you are poor the world does not hold the same promise as when you have wealth. The opportunities are just not there for the poor. Everything costs money in our society and poverty causes folks to watch while other people enjoy their lives. We watch from the sidelines and after awhile we understand that we will never be invited to join in.
I spent the winter of 1995 on the streets of Toronto. It was cold and it was horrible. By the time I crawled my way back to housing and crawled my way back to work and crawled my way back to acquiring a drug plan, years had come and gone. By the time I could afford the drugs that would bring my boy home I realized I was much better off without the drugs. At least I could think straight and have some sort of energy to work with. The first part of solving homelessness is this: be very careful about what you believe to be true. Know that most of what we are told about social safety nets and help in times of need is simply good marketing. It does not exist. It is clever and would be nice but the reality is that when you are poor you are alone in your battle. Even if you completely reinvent yourself to fit the criteria to access funds, the money will not be enough to actually help you. It will keep you in some sort of limbo where you work day and night just to stay where you are. There is no forward movement or chance to get ahead.
The winter I spent on the streets was cold and bitter. There is nothing attractive about homelessness and there is nothing to be gained by the experience. But I have forgotten the sting of the icy winter winds and how they feel when you have no protection. What I do remember is the coldness of our systems and the way policies replace fairness. I truly believe that many of us who have survived the streets know exactly where we made our mistakes and try every day to correct them. I also believe that many of us wait in dread for the next horror. Many of us have come to accept punishment as a way of life and are diminished not so much by being homeless as we are diminished by the knowledge that it could happen again at any time.