If I had not been homeless…
By Hilary Chapple
I guess nobody wants to be homeless, right? Including me. But you guessed it, it happened to me. I was hidden and forced to couch-surf. Even though I had place to stay some nights, I was still homeless. What did I know? That wasn’t homelessness, right? Wrong. It was.
There was a lot that happened to get me to that point: An abusive marriage, severe rejection by my friends, some family members and my ex-wife. Fortunately, I did not have an alcohol or drug addiction problem. Thank Goodness. But, I was suffering from severe trauma, stress and mild chronic depression, which is called dysthymia. I suffered a mental breakdown at the end of 2012 before my marriage was over.
I had separated from my abusive wife in September of 2014 and I did not realize at the time why I just could not hold down a good job. I could not pay the rent on our townhouse; my car payment and utilities were so far behind. And I was hungry. What to do, what to do?
Finally, it was decision time. I had a long-time friend in Edmonton who had told me, after finding out about my unhappy marriage, that I could come up north and get my act together. So, I left Calgary. However, I made arrangements for the unpaid rent and also sold everything possible that I could on Kijiji to raise much-needed funds and gave a ton of my stuff away just to downsize. I dropped off the rest of my belongings at my late sister’s place.
I said to myself, “Edmonton, here I come.” Was it a mistake? No. Did it relieve my stress and trauma? No.
But I was warm and most of the time I ate okay and had hot showers and clean towels. But, in two years, I lived in a bed bug infested hole and at several rentals, which included sleeping on a concrete basement floor to a bedroom with no room for my personal belongings except in tote bags. I lived in nine separate places on 12 separate occasions while homeless.
And yes, I was still stressed and in extreme trauma.
In May of 2014, I came back home to Calgary for a month to a place I’d call a secondary suite, which I know now is illegal. Still is, I checked. No receipts of rent or damage deposit paid, no job, barely enough food and I had to ‘borrow’ from my two roommates to eat a little. There was a two-piece cooking unit and a laundry sink to wash dishes. As it turns out my landlady was snooping through my mail, her three kids were rude, lazy and violent and I was called a thief (I am not). If given the opportunity I would have paid back the ‘borrowed’ food as soon as I could have.
I explained I could not pay the last half of that month’s rent on time and she made me feel so uncomfortable, it was time to go, again.
I packed, but I had nowhere to go. I stayed for two nights at a casual friend’s mom’s condo in a ritzy area of Calgary. I ate and managed to contact EI to get my back money released. Not in time, however. I tried to get a free truck to move my belongings to their garage and a place to live until my EI was back paid (no luck) and I scrambled for bus tickets. I had $40 dollars to my name and nowhere to go, ending up in a Tim Horton’s in Midnapore buying cheap time for my cell phone and trying to get help. That night I found my way to an all-night restaurant staying awake, crushed and in extreme panic. A sympathetic waitress took pity on me with free coffee and snack. By this time, I knew all of my belongings except the clothes I had on, were gone. About $10,000 worth.
Finally, a friend in Red Deer felt sorry for me and, after scrambling for some kind of breakfast, she picked me up and I was in Red Deer. Then my EI came through and I had to go back to Edmonton again. Long story short, I was in four separate homes in a three-month period with an abusive employer and I was homeless again.
By this time, I was a complete mess. It was time to come home to Calgary and I begged for help. My sister got me an interview at Mary Dover House Shelter and I left Edmonton for good. The end of this part of my story is I was home again. I did live at Mary Dover House for 16 months and I finally had the help I needed, and I knew what I had to do. By the time I had my own home, I had been living 755 days homeless not including the bed bug stint in Edmonton.
Now it’s time for the good stuff…
When I lived in the shelter, one of my first thoughts was to find myself both as an individual and as a part of the larger group. Where did I fit in as a part of the Mary Dover House Community? I had questions:
- How was I going to make friends?
- Was there staff that I could turn to for support?
- How could I get involved?
- Income, food and clothing – how was all of that going to happen?
- Lastly, could I overcome my fears and be strong?
Goals, objectives and healing were at the forefront of the next passage in this overwhelming emotional journey that I found myself in.
Who do I blame, myself or others in my circle? Why was I here and was I supposed to be here? There was no one to blame, including me. As my late sister used to tell me, “Blame is a wasted emotion.” So, this is where I was at and I had to move forward. And yes, I realized early on that I was supposed to be right here, right now. If I did not have to worry about a bed to sleep on, I could focus my inner self, on healing and on moving forward.
“To heal the pain, you first must find the pain and accept it” – Dr. Gabor Mate
So I moved forward.
As I had done a lot of media Interviews when I was a LGBTQ activist, the management staff of the YW asked me to do a couple of public relations and media stints. One was at the Soul of the City 14 Speakers’ Forum. Click here to watch and listen. It is interesting when I re-watch this interview, as the conversation says something about my individual poverty and experience with homelessness, as well as my story of healing.
After my appearance at Soul of the City, my life started to change for the better.
Around the same time I injured my back, which meant no more retail jobs for me. A change in career and a new challenge was what I needed. However, I had two jobs while homeless, but both of them just were not my ‘cup-of-tea’. In addition, my back was re-injured during this time.
Then three things happened:
1. I was invited to a Poverty Talks! meeting and was asked to join the advisory committee under the direction and guidance of Vibrant Communities Calgary;
2. I went to the ‘Homeless Charter of Rights’ launch and then was invited to join the Client Action Committee of the Calgary Homeless Foundation; and
3. I was also asked to do some media and public service announcements in the community.
And then… I was hooked and knew that this is what I wanted to do when the time was right. Needless to say, I am a huge fan of advocacy work, building a network and building community.
I could write a book on my last two and a half years of this journey of mine, but here is the ‘Reader’s Digest’ version:
I met a girl.
I was ready to take that step of dating but was frightened after my previous experience. We had checked each other out on two dating websites but as neither of us had subscribed to these sites, we could not chat. I took the plunge and bought a subscription and she did at that same time. Coincidence or fate? You be the judge.
Once we met, I knew she was the one and we fell in love quickly. After only three months, I asked her to marry me. She said yes, and after six months of dating, she asked to be my Housing First and to share her home with me and her daughter. I was nervous, excited and petrified but on Christmas Eve 2015, I moved in.
Quickly, I became involved in my community. I was able to enroll in the Working with Homeless Population Certificate at the University of Calgary – Faculty of Social Work and completed two courses in Non-Profit Management at Mount Royal University as well.
I have worked with amazing and compassionate people who have taught me so much. Through them, I have learned more about Canada’s Indigenous culture and colonization. I have established a great working relationship with Calgary’s own Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, many members of Calgary City Council and many MLAs and MPs. And most importantly, I have more friends than I ever had before, folks who I love and respect.
Here’s a short list of my learning’s through my community involvement:
- Basic income and living wage
- Payday lending and financial inclusion
- Sliding scale with Calgary Transit
- Harm reduction (yes, I carry a Naxolone Kit)
- Calgary’s Charter of Homeless Rights
- Voting rights for the homeless
- Spoken Word and building grassroots teams
- Human rights
- The Longest Night of the Year – Calgary’s Memorial for our deceased Homeless
- I have been a keynote speaker and a workshop initiator and presenter at three homeless conferences as well as a poverty reduction conference
- And so much more…
Also, as I have always had an interest in politics, I will be running as a Provincial Candidate in Alberta’s next Election in 2019. However, I will need to win the nomination.
Currently, I am building a training module to teach about LGBTQ inclusivity and diversity in Canada’s homeless serving sector. I am very excited about this and will hopefully gain some community stakeholder engagement and obtain a grant for my work to continue.
I did lose my dear sister while I was in the shelter but thanks to my fiancée, shelter staff and my counsellor, I got through the unexpected tragedy of losing my closest family member. On top of that, a year later my great-niece passed as well. I am still having a hard time with this, but because of the love from friends, I am hanging on.
So, as I stated before: If I had not become homeless, these incredible opportunities would not have happened to me. Friendships were built, love was gained, as well as a new family, and I found a career that I love, and that I am very good at. I am now a very confident woman who has no fear and knows how to love and is…no longer homeless.
Hilary Chapple is a community advocate, activist and ally living in Calgary. She is also a former member of Poverty Talks! An advisory committee to Vibrant Communities Calgary. Please feel free to leave a comment below.
 Poverty Talks! is a 12-member steering committee of advocates with current or recent lived experience of poverty. The committee supports people who are living in poverty to become involved in social change efforts and political processes, as well as to raise public awareness of poverty. Members advocate for social and public policy change, while also engaging and educating Calgarians about poverty-related issues.