Stigma makes hard times harder

By Stephanie Gauthier

Lee’s lived through hard times. Homelessness, substance use and poverty have all been part of it, but some of the toughest things are surprising, like stigma and the hostility it creates.

Last winter, Lee split her time between the streets and a shelter, accessing the shelter only on the coldest evenings.

“I was sleeping outside of a restaurant, right in front of it. It was freezing out that night and I slept under there with my hair dryer. They had a plug-in on the outside wall and I had a tarp and a blanket and I was sleeping underneath that and I had the hairdryer going on me all night to stay warm because I thought I was going to freeze to death.”

This was a hard night, more difficult and frightening than most people can imagine, and then it got worse.

“This one fellow came out of the restaurant and he called me every name in the book and told me to get out of there, so I packed up and left.”

It wasn’t the first time Lee had experienced poor treatment, she has witnessed plenty of examples of stigma in action, but it still hurt.

“It just made me want to use more,” she says.

How could it not? Unsheltered homelessness was hard, of course, but life in a shelter came with its own challenges. It’s hard to feel safe in a shelter, especially for women.

“I basically just had a bed,” Lee says. “No privacy whatsoever, and there’s guys and girls and it’s all mixed. You don’t know who you’re sleeping six feet away from.”

Her health was another factor that made homelessness, and life in a shelter, more difficult. It’s also what brought her to Kelowna. She moved from Saskatchewan in 2021 based on an invitation from her cousin.

“I was in search of a better life,” she says. “I have an illness, my liver, and I wasn’t getting help medically in Saskatchewan or Manitoba.”

Lee’s cousin had moved by the time she arrived, leaving her in a new city without a support structure. She experienced life without shelter as a result but her journey into homelessness started long before that.

“I was pretty much born an alcoholic,” she says. “It sounds crazy to some people but my parents drank a lot, like a lot. My mother drank heavily while she was pregnant with me.”

Drugs, alcohol and poverty were part of Lee’s life from the beginning, and it was her parents who influenced her to use substances.

“I’ve been kind of a transient person my whole life,” she says. “I just worked and went from place to place to place, and when things didn’t work out I just kept persevering. I just kept on going.”

That path has led her here. She lives at Ellis Place, a subsidized, supportive housing site in Kelowna. Life isn’t perfect, but it’s better. She has access to the staff and other supports in place at Ellis. She also has a community.

“I like it here,” she says. “I love it, actually. It’s a lot better than where I was before. This is way better, way safer, and it’s a way nicer atmosphere here. Nicer people, everything.”

Lee still has health concerns – she’s hoping for a liver transplant – but she’s noticed some improvements since arriving at Ellis Place. She’s sick less, which she credits either to the food or reduced stress. The biggest change with her move to Ellis Place was a new sense of security and safety.

“I have a room with a secure door,” she says. “A door that locks.”

She’s happy with where she is, but she’s still tentative about the future. She’s joined a local community church where she volunteers. She faces a great deal of uncertainty still, but she finds joy in her home and her church.

“It’s a start and I’m okay with that.”

Ellis Place opened in November 2020. It is operated by Canadian Mental Health Association, Kelowna with 38 units of supportive housing for adults 19 years old and over. It features a large common space to encourage building connection amongst residents, peer supporters and staff. Supportive housing is subsidized housing with onsite support to help people who are at risk or experiencing homelessness find and maintain stable housing.