Melissa is passionate about sharing her story to help end stigma against homelessness.

Melissa is a natural storyteller. One telephone conversation had me laughing, crying and eager to learn more. With a wealth of knowledge and experience, Melissa is passionate about sharing her story to help end stigma against homelessness.

“I’ve worked hard my entire life. I have no substance abuse issues or mental health issues. I never thought I’d be homeless. But then life throws you curveballs,” says Melissa.

Hard-working

Melissa has an impressive resume of jobs including time as a nurse, employment counsellor, news director, farmer, animal care worker and many others. At 57 years old, a serious injury left Melissa unable to work-full time and needing benefits. Melissa and her partner moved to Lantzville. Her mother lived close by too.

Applying for disability benefits was difficult and required many visits to her doctor and the help of social workers. After waiting for over three years, Melissa started to receive her disability benefits. She was 60 years old.

Family supports

Then her partner and mom passed away and just like that, her support system was gone.

When the disability benefits recipient turns 65 the payments end and Canada Pension Plan (CPP) benefits start. But Melissa never received her CPP cheques. Somehow, she fell through the cracks.

Melissa spent years trying to sort out her government documents and pension and then she gave up. She had a weekend job at pet shop and was just able to keep afloat. Then the pet shop went out of business.

With no money coming in, and no support system, Melissa’s life took a dark turn. Having nowhere else to go, Melissa moved into her niece’s place.

“They really helped me out and I’m thankful for that,” says Melissa. Unfortunately, this was a volatile home and Melissa knew it wasn’t a good place for her to be. Still, Melissa was taking classes to get out into the community and played in her Bridge club. She tried to keep going as best she could.

Soon, however, Melissa left her niece’s chaotic home. At first, Melissa lived in her van and because she didn’t present like a stereotypical person experiencing homelessness, she says she had a much easier time than most.

Homeless

“My grey hair let me get away with a lot more than other people. I could spend nights sipping coffee at Tim Hortons without being kicked out. I could spend hours in parks reading and sleeping and, in the library, and no one would bother me,” explains Melissa.

Melissa knows she was lucky. Many people experiencing homelessness are kicked out or banned from these places, giving them absolutely no place to go.

Then her van was stolen, along with all of her possessions and important paper work. A friend took her to Samaritan House emergency shelter.

Samaritan House

“Samaritan House saved my life. Without this shelter women in Nanaimo would be in deep, deep trouble,” says Melissa, who was 69 years old at this time. “Staying here gave me a look at what was happening with women experiencing homelessness in Nanaimo. And it was scary. Just 15 beds for women in this whole area.” (During COVID there are only seven beds available).

When Melissa was staying at Samaritan House guests could stay for 30 days at a time (now there is no time limit for guests). Then they’d have to leave for seven days before they could return.

During their seven days away from Samaritan House, many women would do day shifts at the fish plant because employees get paid daily. This would give them enough money for a motel room to spend the night and maybe afford some food. If there was no work at the plant, or the women couldn’t work, they’d spend that week on the streets.

Supportive housing

After one-and-a-half years at Samaritan House, Melissa moved upstairs to Martha’s Place, a supportive housing unit where guests get their own space and privacy. During this time Melissa continued to work with support workers to figure out how to collect her pension cheques. Finally, after many appointments, telephone calls, and paperwork edits, Melissa received her pension.

She moved into permanent supportive housing is doing well. She has stability, safety and is looking forward to getting a dog. 

Many people, like Melissa, don’t fit the stereotype of homelessness. There are many reasons someone may face homelessness. And with job losses due to COVID-19, more and more people in our community don’t know if they can pay next month’s rent.

Homeless is out in the open – on full display. It is a deeply troubling image that seers into our minds-eye. What is less seen – but perhaps more important to the success of housing programs are the many community members who have been housed. They are largely invisible – and forgotten in the din of dealing with homelessness. And so, the image of housing in the community is driven by the challenges, not the successes. But it is the successes that are so instructive to making positive change.

-Nanaimo Region John Howard Society

Here is one case study that shows the positive impacts of the efforts in Nanaimo:

MM entered the Housing First program in 2016. For over 40 years, MM had spent every day homeless, drinking with a group of friends, downtown.

So it was no surprise that when MM was housed, he continued spending most of his time outside drinking with his friends.  He would also have friends over to his new place, where they would drink and smoke inside his apartment, putting his tenancy at risk.  

We worked with MM to moderate his tenancy behaviours (which he had to learn), and worked with his landlord to keep him housed. That process took two years. In 2018, MM decided to stop drinking after yet another visit to the emergency room. 

But it was not only his addiction that he was breaking away from – he was also aware that it meant breaking away from his friends too.  Aside from one uncle, all of his family members in the area are heavy drinkers, and continuing to hang out with them would lead him back to addiction, as it had done before.  

MM started working on the Urban Clean Team program crew, showing up for every shift, three times a week. MM celebrated a year of sobriety. But he was really struggling with loneliness and worried that he was going to relapse.  Our Housing Outreach worker took MM to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where he was introduced to an elder in the community and that led to him participating in another sober living support program. 

While MM did not find value in the sober living program, he had found some people to relate to at AA. He was grateful for the guidance of an elder, and his uncle has become a much bigger figure in his life.

He has not returned to the emergency room and is closing in on two years of sobriety, in large part because he has a community for support. 

MM is an example of the important intertwined roles of a) case worker support (for therapeutic support) and b) friends who can help a person to rebuild their life in a healthier direction.

The changed conditions that contributed to MM’s success include housing, supported employment, and also healthy friends to support MM’s decision to change his life.

Learn more about the Nanaimo Region John Howard Society