When we first met two years ago, you were living in supported housing in the Downtown Eastside. I was your outreach worker, and your number one priority was moving into more independent housing. I remember that your housing wouldn’t allow you to have visitors, and having your mom and other friends over was important to you. Admittedly, you were hard to connect with at first. I would offer a quick walk to JJBean for a coffee and sometimes that would entice you. Sometimes I’d offer you a cookie as well, and you would always make sure to respond with a quick but genuine “thank you” before walking back with me to your place where you were getting ready to meet friends.
Slowly, you started telling me more about you: the multiple times that you were offered heroin and overdosed; past run-ins with an abusive partner; your son who lives with his dad further up north; friends you’ve made downtown. The more we met, the more I started to see the fun-loving, hopeful, and resilient woman underneath your shy and quiet front. The experiences that you’d lived through and continue to live through everyday humble me. I can’t imagine being so strong in the face of so many challenges: intergenerational trauma, poverty, social stigma. I regularly think about these obstacles that you bravely endure. I remember that you also suffered from serious anxiety which made it hard for you to even walk to the coffee shop with me. You felt like everyone around was watching and judging you. When you told me about your anxiety, it made me understand a bit more why it was sometimes so hard to convince you to spend time with me, let alone work on bigger goals like finding housing or a job.
Eventually, you found alternative housing, at an SRO that was a better fit for you. In the beginning you needed my help to start making some phone calls together and set up an appointment to meet with the building manager. Yet you went to the meeting one evening on your own and secured yourself a suite. On your move-in day, we threw everything you owned into garbage bags and a few suitcases. Together, we walked it up the street and then took three flights of stairs to your new room. I remember you being so excited that your mom could finally visit you. I was so happy for you.
When we had an opening at our Miller Block residence, I pushed hard to put your name forward as a candidate. You had been at your current residence for several months, but were at risk of eviction due to issues with some of the guests that you’d been bringing into the building. I knew that a move to more supported housing wouldn’t automatically change your lifestyle; you would likely continue using substances, and need ongoing support with your mental health challenges. But no one was asking you to change, and I knew that Miller Block would be able to provide you with a home in a welcoming community, with flexible access to services that would meet your needs.You also expressed that you wanted to work on building your life skills such as cooking and budgeting, and I really felt like a move to Miller Block could make a positive impact on your life.
When I brought you to our office to meet with the two male managers of the program and give you a tour of the suite, you talked animatedly in the car about visiting your dad over the holidays. As soon as we arrived, I could tell that you were nervous. Your body tensed up; you became very shy, and stopped talking almost completely. It occurred to me that you probably didn’t have many positive relationships with the men in your life, and when I asked you if you were more comfortable with female workers, you responded with a firm yes. This made me sad, but also made me feel hopeful that you might connect with some of our male staff who would show you alternative versions of masculinity. I hoped that maybe with time, they could build some trust with you.
A few months ago, you moved into Miller Block, and already I have noticed a difference. I know your outreach workers still have trouble connecting with you sometimes, but I also know that when you need something, you’re able to ask for support from the staff on site. Since your move, I have changed positions in the agency as well. I am now the coordinator at our Community Services Office, and when you moved in, I encouraged you to come visit me at the office. I was sincere, but I also knew that it might take a lot for you to be able to come over to use the space here. Sure enough, however, you came in to have a coffee and use the computers a few times during your first week. I would always say hi, and you would never stay for very long, but I was excited that you had come. Slowly too, you began to seem more comfortable here: you might even say hello to me first, or rather than just saying hi you might even linger a few minutes to have a chat. You’ve even come to a few events, like our women’s group on Valentine’s Day, and seem to enjoy the activities. I was most surprised to see you recently with your worker at our Sports Day BBQ, and as you know, I am always so glad to see you out and about. I know that it’s extremely hard for you to connect with new people, but it really shows that you want to expand your network and try new things, even when it creates anxiety.
Recently, you have also been coming to the workshops held by our writer-in-residence, Lindsay. The first day you arrived, I encouraged you to check it out, mostly using the fact that Lindsay always brings snacks as an encouragement. I figured that you might have a muffin and leave, but the next thing I knew you were sitting next to Lindsay and colouring quietly. I was so excited to see you participating, especially because I personally know the power of a meditative colouring session. The next week you came back again, and Lindsay told me later that you were much chattier during this session, and that she was impressed with how much more comfortable you seemed. You’ve come back a few times since then, and I always enjoy seeing you colouring at the table with everyone. For someone who really struggles with anxiety and being social, even just sitting at this table is a feat, and I’m so happy that you’ve been able to do it.
One of the Miller Block workers recently told me after he’d taken you on an errand and that you’d commented that I am always so nice to you when you’re at the office. He reminded you that I used to be your outreach worker, so that made sense – but more than that, Jennifer, I’m nice to you because you deserve to be treated with respect and kindness! You have overcome so many terrifying challenges in your life, and I know that you will face many more. Life hasn’t always been kind or fair to you, and people probably haven’t always been kind to you either. My biggest hope for you is that you will get used to people being genuine and compassionate to you on a daily basis, and that you will know that you are worthy of acceptance and belonging. At the very least, I hope that you know that when other people in your life are unkind, you can always turn to us as people who will be there for you. We will always be there, even just to pour you a cup of coffee if that’s what you need.
One of the things that I have come to realize while working at the JHS for more than five years is the importance of having choices and how that impacts our quality of life. Having housing at Miller Block allows you to still choose to go downtown, use drugs, or hang out with friends if you want to: that is all still just as accessible to you as before. But living with support outside of the Downtown Eastside also gives you the option of being somewhere you feel safe, cooking a meal for yourself, and connecting with others who might live a different lifestyle than you do. Having options is important, and makes change possible one choice at a time.
I am so glad that you have found a home with us at JHS, Jennifer.
I wish you nothing but the best.
*names and identifying information have been changed to respect participant’s confidentiality