Mental health and homelessness

20% of all Canadians will suffer at one time or another with mental health issues. These issues include depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, schizophrenia and obsessive, compulsive and addictive behaviours.

For homeless people that figure is believed to be around 35%, and its estimated 75% of homeless women are affected by mental health issues.

The vast majority of women I’ve met in the shelter since being homeless have had some sort of mental health issues. Many of the women are taking medication to cope. In the shelter all medications are locked away, and must be signed out by a member of staff and the resident. We aren’t even allowed to have Tylenol or Advil on our person, a woman can be dismissed from the shelter if they are found with medications that they haven’t turned in.

At the shelter we have access to medical help. An organization calls in at least once a week to take care of any medical needs we have. Since becoming homeless I’ve had a series of health problems, from a broken arm, to pneumonia, to gynecologic problems which they have helped me with. The nurses also check up on the resident’s mental health.

I don’t have an MSI card yet and I have to pay for prescription medications. This presents me with issues at times as I don’t have access to money to pay for them. I also get billed from the hospital if I attend emergency. I’ve gone from using mood stabilizers and lorazepam to just using anti-depressants as I can’t afford to pay for all my medications. I do get help from charitable organizations sometimes to help pay for my medications, but it’s hard to ask for help. It takes a lot from your own self worth, and when you are struggling with self doubt and depression that just makes you feel worse.

At the shelter I’ve seen all sorts of people who are trying to live with mental health issues. Many stem from childhood abuse and neglect, some are illnesses such as personality disorders, many women have suicidal ideation, and others live with addiction. Some women stop caring about issues such as personal hygiene, others eat compulsively or starve themselves, some women have paranoia and trust issues.

Being homeless is in itself a stressful situation. I have issues with noise sensitivity, being around a lot of people and an increased startle reaction. I’ve had panic attacks at the shelter and I’ve felt suicidal at times. Not being able to plan a life is hard. I don’t know when I’ll get out of my homeless situation. That impacts on the depression I live with, as sometimes I can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve also been struggling with grief after losing my wife, and have been able to access grief counselling thanks to the staff at the shelter.

The staff try so hard to boost the confidence of the residents. Many women are left in disbelief that they are in the shelter when they first come. As someone who has been in this situation for over 7 months now I’ve seen a lot of women who walk into the shelter looking crushed and defeated, and walk out into a new apartment with the belief that they can succeed. Having staff on hand who will listen, who will try and give us a positive perspective or who simply make us believe that someone cares is priceless.

Living with mental health issues is hard enough when you have a stable environment to lean on. Dealing with these issues when you are homeless makes everything so much harder. A shelter is not conducive to promoting mental wellbeing due to so many people all struggling at once. However, now that I have the support from the staff and other organizatons I’ve found that I’m mentally stronger than the day I first accessed the shelter.

Necessary evils?

Being homeless puts a person in positions they would rather not be in, doing things they would rather not be doing.

For me it’s panhandling. Basically begging on the street. It’s hard to describe the humiliation I feel when I do it. Without any other way to get money it’s a necessary evil. I’ve found there are several reactions from the public; the people who look through you like you aren’t even there; the people who look at you like something they have scraped off their shoes; the people who politely say they have no change; and the people who try and help as much as they can.

I was out panhandling today, in heat that rivals an August day, and I ended up with around $12, 6 bus tickets, a handful of chocolate almonds, and, from one lovely girl who came and talked to me, some feminine hygiene products and a Nestle Crunch bar that she bought at the drug store for me.

I know that some people look at me and think I’ll just spend any money I receive on crack or alcohol. Who can blame them? It’s easy to stereotype and think the worst of people.

For other homeless women they have other decisions they make which I know they’d rather not do.

Some women steal. In the shelter it’s a well known fact that you leave NOTHING of value lying around. Cigarettes are used as currency, as are bus tickets and will disappear if they are left on a table, or counter. Residents have had mobile phones stolen while they have been plugged into the wall charging. I’ve seen packages of diapers (nappies) taken along with clothes and even toothpaste. Anything that can be sold will be stolen. For some women they are desperate for their next fix and will take anything that they can get their hands on to give to their dealer.

I have also met some women who have shoplifting off to almost an art. They will walk into the shelter with clothes, food, alcohol and electrical goods that they have taken from stores. I’ve also met women who will literally steal to order for others.

Some women who have recently left the shelter shoplift to be able to feed themselves. Once their rent has come from their Income Assistance they are left with little to live on. Nova Scotia Power often asks for a security deposit (often over $100) to hook up the power. Similarly the telephone companies will charge over $200 deposit for a telephone line to be installed. To survive on income assistance means that fresh meat, fresh fruit and vegetables are something that can be beyond the means of someone who is trying to get themselves back on their feet. The prices of fresh produce in Nova Scotia is expensive, and so some women will steal what they can to be able to feed themselves fresh food.

Other women work the streets. These women talk about how they hate selling sex, but are usually trying to feed a long-standing drug habit and some have pimps who not only take money from these women but also work as their dealer, keeping them supplied with crack and forcing them to work on the streets to pay for it.

All of the above actions are wrong. None of us go into the actions lightly. Poverty forces us to do things we don’t want to. While I would never steal or sell sex, begging hurts me. It makes me ashamed that I’m reduced to this.

For those with addictions it’s not as simple as “just don’t do it”. Many of the women use their substance abuse to ease the awful pain that they have experienced. Sexual abuse seems to be a theme that the majority of the women in the shelter have experienced. They get into a vicious cycle of using crack or alcohol to numb themselves from the pain of abuse, needing to then get money to get the substance they are addicted to, having to sell sex to pay for that substance, then needing to numb themselves to sell themselves to buy their fix. If a woman can steal something that means she won’t need to go and work on the street, especially in the biting cold of winter, then she will take that option.

I’m not excusing criminal activity, but as a criminologist I want to try and understand motivations behind behaviours. When you are desperate, when there are no other means left, a person resorts to whatever means they can to get by. Poverty can make you rethink your boundaries. I could never imagining panhandling for money a year ago. Now I know that if I want to have a few dollars in my pocket every now and again then it’s necessary.

Homeless in Halifax

What do you think about when you hear about homelessness? Junkies? Dropouts? Who can blame you? My viewpoint of homeless people was a similar one at one point. No way would I end up homeless. I’m a post grad with a qualifications in criminology and criminal justice. I had worked hard.

I became homeless last October. My story is one which I hope no-one else never needs to go through.

I married my Canadian wife in February 2016. I sold up everything in my home country of the UK and moved to Nova Scotia permenantly last May. I was blissfully happy with my soul mate, the love of my life. We were excited about what the future held. We applied for my spousal visa and work permit, knowing it would take around 3 months for my work visa to be granted.

In June 2016 my wife suddenly and tragically died. I was hospitalized in a foreign city, in a foreign country, on a foreign continent. Within days I was diagnosed with severe PTSD relating to my wife’s death. I have been left with nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety and panic attacks. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do, and being stuck in hospital left me unable to contact any services in Nova Scotia to get me through this awful time.

Within days of my wife’s death, her daughters, who had not seen her in months swooped in. They closed her bank account, which I had put a substantial amount of money in, to cover life while I could not work. I never saw a penny of that money. They cancelled the lease on our apartment, which was in her name; not that I could either go back there without my precious wife, or afford the rent on my own. They took my wife’s car. They put our property in storage after hand picking what they wanted, including wedding gifts, and left me with a bill of $138 a month to ensure I didn’t lose the little I had left in life. At that time I was too sick to be able to do anything about it. By the time I was well enough to deal with it, it was too late.

I had enough money in my UK bank account to pay rent on a room over the summer, and made friends with the neighbours who I consider my “Halifam”. These amazing friends ensured I ate, slept, and didn’t isolate myself. They literally saved my life. I love them.

When the lease was up I was in deep trouble. My spousal visa had been rejected as my wife had died, and along with that my work permit was refused. My application for a visa was automatically changed to a Humanitarian and Compassionate visa, which I’m still waiting to hear progress on. As a non-Canadian I was ineligible for Income Assistance or even an MSI (medical) card. I was in a no win situation. I was homeless.

I didn’t know where to turn. I did what we do in this age of technology and googled “women’s homeless shelters” and picked up the phone. The first shelter was unable to accommodate me as I don’t qualify for income assistance. But they gave me a bed on a sofa for as long as it took to get a bed in the emergency shelter. That was one night. The next morning, with massive trepidation I arrived at the emergency shelter.

I didn’t know what to expect. My head was filled with images of crack addicts, working girls and those recently released from jail. Those women do exist, however I learned very quickly that all these women have long, complicated and often heartbreaking stories. Many have lived through abuse, neglect, violence, coercion and exploitation. All the women I’ve met have lived with poverty. Many have acted in ways that makes them feel ashamed. Self confidence and self belief is something that doesn’t run high in a homeless shelter. Each women is living her own nightmare when they arrive at the shelter.

Thank god for the staff! These women who work at the shelter seem to have endless patience, a high tolerance for verbal abuse and most importantly a wicked sense of humour. Their compassionate and caring natures have been a bright light in the darkness that came into my life last year. Without the staff I would not be here now. They have arranged support and grief counselling for me. They found a family doctor who would sign me up. They have sat with me while I have sobbed, they have cried with me. Their jobs are stressful, and at times they act as referees when tempers flair with the residents of the shelter. I hate seeing them being abused by residents, it angers me to see these women shouted and sworn at when they are just doing their jobs.

The shelter is a complicated place. With up to 20 women at a time living there, each with their own trauma to deal with, clashes of personality happen often. I’ve seen verbal and physical altercations happen between the residents for reasons that seem trivial at the time, but that have hurt the people involved. Friendships often form though. Without a friendly face or words of encouragement life would definitely be much harder. We often laugh, we talk, we cry, we support each other. We care about each other.

The shelter runs a “harm reduction policy” which means that a woman won’t be turned away from the shelter if she is drunk or high, as long as they can follow staff instructions and make it to their bedspace. Women with substance abuse problems of some kind are common place. Many are trying to numb the pain of their past life and their current situation. However, as drugs and alcohol often do, some of the residents come into the shelter displaying behaviour that can upset and further traumatize other residents. It’s hard to empathize with another person when your life feels so out of control and horrific.

I find the shelter a distressing place to be at times, to the point that I leave and sofa surf with friends. The noise in the shelter, the tension, the prevailing feeling of sadness and hopelessness, the clashes of personality affect me. When it becomes too much I leave.

At this moment in time I can’t get my own home. I don’t qualify for any help from Community Services to pay rent. Until my immigration is finalized I am stuck being homeless. This is a situation that depresses me, and I struggle with the reality of knowing that for the foreseeable future I have no home of my own.

I’ve become used to operating without money. Friends have helped me financially to keep my possessions in storage, until a friend moved from the shelter into her own place. It made sense to me to remove that $138 a month storage charge, and let her use the furniture I have. I’m grateful to know that she can use it until I am able to get my own home.

With no money, I can’t pay for things in life that most people take for granted. Go for a Timmy’s? Nope. Hop on a bus? Nope. Buy personal items? Nope. I’ve had to accept that these things are things I need to do without. I can’t afford to pay for my medications and rely on local charitable organizations to help with those costs. I’ve lost around 70-80 pounds in weight since my wife’s death, and can’t afford to buy new clothes. I rely on donations to clothe myself.

Pride is something that goes out of the window when you are homeless. Pride will stop you from getting a bed for the night, or a warm meal. Pride will stop you from getting a warm jacket. It’s something I struggle with at times. Knowing that the things I need have to be donated to me often leaves me feeling inadequate and useless. I’m not allowed to work for money and so I’ve had to swallow my pride to ensure I can survive. Accepting charity from others is a difficult thing to do, but sometimes it’s all we can do.

I arrived at the shelter over 7 months ago. I don’t have a light at the end of my tunnel at the moment. I don’t know when or if my visa will be granted. I don’t know how long I’ll be homeless. I wake up every day knowing I’ve just got to do my best to get through that day. Each day I manage to smile and laugh. Each day I have someone in my life who I know cares, friends, the staff at the shelter and a new girlfriend now. I’m so thankful to have amazing people in my life. They keep me going and keep me believing that my visa will one day be sorted, that I will be able to get a job and a home of my own.

Thank you for reading my first post. I appreciate it.

I have a gofundme page at gofundme.com/2t6y7ds4 if you would like to help me. Namaste