Laughing through adversity
By Stephanie Gauthier
Corey smiles easily. He laughs and he curses, and he’s hard not to like.
“I’m a joker,” he says. “I’ll do something so stupid out of the blue to put a smile on someone’s face.”
This is true for the staff at Ellis Place, a subsidized, supportive housing site in Kelowna where he now lives, just as it’s true for the people he’s shared emergency shelter spaces with over the years.
Time evaporates when speaking with Corey, especially when the conversation turns to motorcycles. He loves riding them and building them. He scrolls through photos on his phone, stopping on a video of himself riding a custom bike.
Corey uses a hand-operated clutch to shift gears in the video. He does so because he doesn’t have legs. They were both amputated above the knee in 2010. He doesn’t complain about this misfortune or feel sorry for himself. He jokes about it instead. He says it helps put people at ease.
“What disability?” He pads the seat of his chair in mock surprise. “My legs, oh god, where’d my legs go?”
Corey has a hereditary blood clotting disorder that led to the amputations. He shrugs about it now, saying he wouldn’t take back his legs even if he could.
“I do more with no legs than I ever did with them.”
Corey has a long history with drugs. He used cocaine for ten years and opiates for 25, but he’s put all of that behind him.
“I still like to get some coolers on the weekend,” he says. But, he’s left the harder substances in the past and he’s changed his lifestyle in a lot of other ways. He volunteers with his church now instead of running with motorcycle gangs. These changes tie back to Corey’s mother, who died from lung cancer in 2017.
“I was at her side when she passed away,” he says. “She always said to me life’s too short to be miserable, laughter’s the best medicine, and pay it forward.”
He’s been working in this direction ever since. He’s lived at Ellis Place since December 2021 but, before that, he was in an emergency shelter. He spent a lot of time living in shelters as he waited five years to get into Ellis Place. He counts himself lucky.
“In the shelter, you’re just in open pods so if you go to the washroom people are in your pod stealing. You’re gone for 30 seconds and stuff’s missing. Here you have a locked door and workers that look out for you.”
Corey’s so upbeat in the face of all the adversity he’s faced, that it’s tempting to view it as a defense mechanism. Maybe it’s his way of coping with the stigma or the hostility he’s encountered in his life? Corey disagrees.
“I have a philosophy of ‘if you don’t like me for who I am, go f*** yourself’,” he says.
He can’t seem to imagine that people might treat him differently because of his amputations, his history of substance use or his experiences with homelessness.
“I want to be treated just as you want to be treated. Equally,” he says.
But, he does see the effects of stigma in others, particularly in relation to drugs. He says that he’s been an outlet for other shelter residents who used substances but preferred not to talk about it to staff. He’s lived the life so he can be an understanding, non-stigmatizing ear for them. He can be the bridge for people who might not otherwise ask for help.
Corey is optimistic about his future. He volunteers at a variety of organizations and he helps out at Ellis Place wherever he can. He’s taken training courses to administer Naloxone, a drug that can reverse opiate overdoses. He’s lived a lot of life and sees a lot in the community for him to do.
“I’ve been there, done that and I don’t want to do it again,” he says.
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.