Sustainable Eastern Ontario
Spare a little change, please?
Being homeless isn't a planned event. There aren't any how-to guides written on it, and there aren't any teachers who will explain how to prepare to be homeless. If you've never experienced homelessness or anything close, then it'll be difficult to understand what it truly means and how it truly feels.
The closest that I ever came to being homeless was when I was 19 years old. I was living at home with my father, mother, and two younger sisters. My father was an abusive alcoholic who took his anger out on my mom. In 2008 I called the police for the first time when he was being violent. In 2010, he lost his job and the financial stress caused him to drink more. July of the same year, my dad announced that he wasn't going to buy food for the family anymore.
He was starting to get violent one morning, and I called the police to our home for a second time. I decided to take my mother and two sisters out of the home when the officers arrived, and they watched as the four of us packed our things. Then they escorted us out of the home. When we left, we didn't have any place to go and I didn't have a lot of money, but I knew that I didn't have any choice but to leave.
At first the four of us lived in a motel. Money was tight; I only had a couple hundred dollars saved from previous pay cheques and two student credit cards. Within two weeks I spent everything I had saved up, and I could tell that my situation wasn't going to change.
I was getting scared and desperate, and started to wonder what the options were. I worried about having to sleep on the streets--it wasn't something I wanted to consider at all. Women's shelters were another option, but the ones we called were too full to take all four of us together.
Shadow bars. Source: http://foter.com/ (free stock photos)
My options dwindled. I worried about having to separate the family. I worried about everyone's safety. All that I wanted was a safe and stable home; the rest I would think about later. Thankfully, a friend heard of our situation and took the four of us into her home. We never had to resort to sleeping on the streets.
Eventually, my family was able to arrange a permanent and low-cost living situation with the help of the City of Ottawa. Homelessness is now a distant reality for my family, but I will never forget how close we came to it.
Now, whenever I pass a homeless person on the street, I understand that they are not there by choice. No one chooses to be vulnerable, afraid, and alone. Life has placed them there and they don't know where to turn.
Some people are homeless for years and they are forced to learn how to survive on the streets. They learn what is safe to eat, how to keep warm, and how to keep themselves safe. I was lucky enough that I did not have to learn those things.
It takes a strong person to accept homelessness as their reality, and it takes a strong person to let the condescending glares and remarks of bystanders roll off their backs. I'm not sure if I am, ever was, or ever will be strong enough to endure what many people go through every day of their lives.
I wish that people were more understanding of the homeless. I wish they'd take the time to understand that homelessness isn't about being lazy or jobless. In the summer of 2010, looking for a job was the last thing on my mind. I was preoccupied with food and shelter and keeping my family safe and together. When you're living on the streets your priorities change.
I want to stress how important it is to change our mindset about homelessness. We should not be harsh to people who cannot help themselves, but instead we should do what we can to understand what they are going through. It is important not to judge someone for the situation that they're in. Instead, we all should work to support organizations and services that fight homelessness.
When we can, we should donate a little time, money, clothing, or food to those who need it the most. If that is too much to ask, then we should have a change of heart and give compassion to people who are struggling.
I've had a big change of heart and mind since I was nearly homeless--hopefully it won't take that much to see a change in others.
S.P. is a university student and aspiring writer living in Ottawa.
The PERC thanks the Community Foundation of Ottawa
and the Ottawa Sustainability Fund for their support
of our Practical Environmentalism: Energy Conservation for Low-Income Populations project
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