It’s been ten years since I was homeless the first time. I had also been hospitalized just three months after I finally left the women’s shelter, as a proactive measure against self-harm. Ultimately though, the cost to me was becoming homeless a second time upon discharge. These experiences have been on my mind lately, as my thoughts wander back to how my mother responded to these crises like this is all she ever expected of me. As though my maximum potential as a human being was and always would be the type of person she most feared and looked down upon. And yet, she treated both my leaving home and my gender transition as though I had been suddenly erased from the face of the earth. If she had wanted to help me when I was most in need, she was powerless to do anything but bring me right back to the place I was most powerless — voiceless by her silent side, under the same roof as my psychopathic, fear-mongering father. I chose to struggle through homelessness twice over having my fate slammed shut by the door of my natal home. And while those choices cost me, I am alive, equipped with a voice, and have a will to live as authentically as I’ve always dreamed of being. These are things I simply could never have as long as I was within arm’s reach of any of my genetic relatives. Things that would always be just out of my reach as long as I was within theirs.
The day my father caught me in the middle of moving out was the last time we ever had an exchange of words that even remotely resembled a conversation. He called me a “class act” and drove off. It was also the last time I had a similar interaction with my middle sister. She tried to say as ominously as possible, “Blood is thicker than water,” as if to threaten me. The entire family had already become convinced that I was a raging alcoholic, when in fact, I had only been drunk once and avoided drinking even when the opportunity presented itself. I can only speculate that this is why my mother (the adult child of an alcoholic) limited her interactions with me to begging me to return, using a pathetic child-like tone of voice. The rest of my immediate family was extremely condescending towards me at every opportunity from that day forward, instead of even trying to engage me as their equal. My decision wasn’t seen as liberation, maturation, or my first steps toward becoming an independent adult. My decision wasn’t celebrated or supported. It was addressed as though I had thrust a knife into my father’s back, in some sort of Shakespearean vengeance plot. All of these gestures, and the distinguished lack of virtually any offer of help or assistance from any of my family at all (or even any attempt to engage me except in small talk), merely convinced me of how right I was to get the fuck out of there and stay away no matter what the cost.
Again, there is that word. Cost. I knew it would be bigger than I could handle, because that’s how my entire life had played out until then. But I still hoped I would be wrong, so I tried as hard as I could to prove to myself that I could handle living on my own. I left without savings, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that I didn’t have enough money on welfare. So for two weeks in a row, I attempted to win a popularity contest thinly veiled as a micro-beauty-pageant in a bar, just so I could buy groceries. I failed, and felt utterly humiliated. After my run in the second week, I spent the night in the neighbouring cyber cafe, waiting for the start of bus service. It was the only place I knew that was warm, safe, and open 24 hours. It was the end of February on the snow-and-ice side of the mountains, and being exposed all night to -40 °C (the same value in °F) weather was not an option. That morning would be the last day I formally had a home to go to.
The Cost of Informal Emancipation
At the end of the night the first week of the bar contest, I accepted a ride home from a strange man. While driving me “home”, he put his car in park in the pitch black behind a small airport. When he reached for me, I lost it on him. If it was going to happen, it wasn’t going down without a fistfight. Fortunately for me (and perhaps for him too), he decided to drive. I discovered that my keys were missing from my bag when he pulled up next to my house. To this day, I am convinced that man had found a way to steal my keys in the hopes he could manipulate me into going home with him when I found out I was locked out. I had a lucky break (and jumped out of the car as fast as I could) when someone came out of the house just a couple minutes later. But I wasn’t so lucky the following week. To my great dismay, when I finally did make it back to my home after fighting to stay awake all night in the cyber cafe, I didn’t have enough time to make it there before there would be no one left to let me in for at least two days. The only thing I knew to do was look for anyone I knew at all. And that evening, I found him. I told him what happened and asked him if I could stay on his couch for the night. He was happy to help, but I had to wait until the end of an open mic night first. We didn’t leave until 1 a.m.
I was relieved to finally let my guard down and fall asleep, but he had other plans. It started out unremarkably enough. He just wanted to show me a music video from a musician we shared a common interest in. I curled up and he put his arm around me while I could barely keep my eyes open. When he was done showing me videos, he let me lay down. But then he came back. My mind went straight to the same place as when I was 17 and my boyfriend had taken me to a house party where I drank something that made my insides burn. He had taken me home and pressured me into sex, and once we got started, I was in so much pain I could barely breathe. And he laid me down. He came back. He raped me. So did this man, who had agreed to let me sleep on his couch while I was locked out of my home. I had blacked out from the pain the previous year. This time, I was so physically exhausted that I couldn’t stay awake or fight him off as it was happening to me. It was horrifically painful. I carried that trauma with me, and the smell of him all over my body, as I put my clothes back on and walked out the front door. I didn’t know where to go, how to even tell anyone what happened to me, or what to do other than try and secure a safe place to go. Anywhere other than my family’s home. Anywhere other than with that man again.
Unfortunately, after searching all day for anyone I knew, the only person I could find was a drug dealer. He took all my money and took me to an apartment building just a couple of blocks from where I had spent the previous night. He manipulated me emotionally, and I couldn’t even believe it was happening to me for the second time in 24 hours when he did it. All I could do was watch my hands on the concrete as I was being sexually assaulted by a drug dealer in the stairwell of an apartment building where I had followed him hoping for a place to sleep. He left me in the lobby, where I tried to stay awake, waiting for him to come back to give me a place to sleep. I struggled against a silent migraine until dawn, when someone brought a security guard back to throw me out. All I had left, apart from what I was wearing, was an extra pair of pants in my bag. I became homeless that morning when I was evicted over the phone (the police took his side and refused to cooperate with my request to remove my belongings).
I bet I know what you’re thinking at this point, because it’s already all run through my head. And the answers concerning police start with the certainty that no one would believe me, and even if they did, no one would be able to do anything about it. There were no witnesses to what was going on inside my head other than me. I couldn’t say that what I learned from being subjected to incest put me in that mental space, because I was still deeply in denial. And there were no witnesses to what was going on in those apartment buildings. I had no last names, and our justice system would put me on trial, rather than my perpetrator(s). I would be asked “Well what did you expect would happen?” instead of seeing my perpetrator(s) answer, under oath, “Well what did you expect would happen if you gave her the choice?” The truth is that I really didn’t expect to be sexually assaulted. And the truth is that if I were presented with the choice, I would have said no — I’d have a hard time believing anyone would be convinced I’d say yes when I couldn’t even stay awake, or when they had just taken all the money I had left after I had been locked out of my home for three days. As for why I didn’t even feel I could turn to my parents, you first have to ask yourself just how much of my trust they had to violate and erode away from me to make me feel unsafe turning to them. And the answer is all of it.
After I was evicted over the phone, I only knew to dial a help line for youth, where I was directed to the homeless shelter I would find myself stranded in from that morning. I was refused further assistance from welfare, and was told that my file would be re-opened if I found another place to live and had my rent forms signed by a landlord. We were locked out on weekdays from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. (and on weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.) as long as it was warmer than -30 °C (that’s -22 °F), and I spent this time wandering through the indoor pedestrian bridges, begging for change from strangers. The doors were opened (on weekdays) from 12 to 1 p.m. to let us in for water and food that would make you lose your appetite even if you were slowly starving to death (as many of us were). I addressed what needs of mine were unmet with pan-handling by picking up shoplifting (which wasn’t uncommon either). At night, all the available beds were filled with women who struggled with concurrent addictions, post-trauma, abusive pimp boyfriends, eating disorders, and mental health problems. The significant majority were survival sex workers, many had little to no job skills, and a few were illiterate primary school drop-outs. These are the women our government simply doesn’t care about once they’ve fallen through the gaps in the system. The only ways women had to get out of this situation were through sex work, being rescued by either family or their boyfriends/spouses, unbelievable (and astronomically impossible) good fortune that allowed them to secure a housing situation independently, being arrested and put in jail, or waiting for a room to open up in a volunteer-run, Christian-centred, women-only halfway house for addictions recovery and/or liberation from survival sex work (at that time, it was a three-year wait list).
Meanwhile, I also found men to socialize with, who were living in the neighbouring men’s shelter. I quickly learned that though they too were locked out for the same hours, men were welcome to go to the Salvation Army halfway house from 1 to 2 p.m. to take as much food as they could carry with them (some literally filled garbage bags with sandwiches) after the lunch hour in the homeless shelter — they were also offered exceptionally better and more nutritious food, because their staff were committed to actually helping feed the men there (ours were hoarding anything of quality that was donated for us). And while they had a time limit on their stay in the homeless shelter (except in the case of significant mental disability), for this reason, they were granted assistance from welfare. With that money, they could subsequently rent a room in the Salvation Army halfway house for the maximum allowed time, before renting a room at either the YMCA or a number of men-only subsidized apartments that were in place specifically to get men off the streets.
The men’s shelter helped put at-risk men back on their feet while the women’s shelter literally created disabled, powerless, helpless women whose only means of liberation robbed them of all their potential. And sometimes it cost them their lives. A few months after Pickton was arrested in British Columbia for taking the lives of survival sex workers from the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown East side, one of the women I was living with in the shelter was taken from our streets, 500 miles away. I’ve mentioned this loss in a previous blog post on my history with sex work, as the news of this woman’s murder bludgeoned the point home, how close I was to facing my own death, simply by the act of contemplating whether I would have to resort to survival sex work to make it back out of that shelter. Of course, I had already heard the horror stories from women who had been living there for years prior to my arrival. They had already told me about women who were last seen being picked up before they disappeared for days, and wound up finally re-appearing after being released from a hospital, having been beaten within an inch of their lives and left for dead. They had already told me about the violence and the women who get ripped off and the women who can only deal with it by getting as high as they fucking can. They were trying to tell me, in their own way, that I had a higher potential. It’s taken me this long to finally realize that’s what they meant by all the warnings.
From the Shelter to the Hospital to Homeless a Second Time
I convinced a complete stranger to sign my welfare papers and let me rent a room in his 2-bedroom apartment. That’s how I finally made it out. But before long, I needed to leave him too. And that’s how I subsequently wound up being involuntarily hospitalized. As soon as I arrived at the hospital, I was further threatened with incarceration in the nearest asylum if I tried to leave, and having mittens taped over my hands if I attempted to disrupt the superficial wounds I had caused myself. Other than my therapist at the time, the only person who visited me was the person who made the phone call that landed me there. He dumped all of my personal belongings in the room, handed me a $900 bill he had single-handedly incurred on my cell phone the previous month, and informed me that he had phoned my parents for advice. He told me that he reached my father on his cell phone, and before he had even finished his question, he was answered “Throw her in the hospital.” Followed, of course, by the click of disconnection. No one else, including my parents, attempted to reach me. I was transferred after two weeks as an in-patient to the psych ward of a second hospital. A psychiatrist and her intern (who I was not given the opportunity to consent to being present) told me what medications I was required to accept, but they adhered strictly to the use of chemical formulae. When I pressed for exactly what medications these were because I couldn’t understand, the intern laughed at me until I left the office.
I was told after that single consultation, without any further explanation, that I didn’t deserve to be there. I was sent on a one-way Greyhound ticket back to the city where I had been in the homeless shelter. I was expected to return to that shelter and await a vacancy in the Christian-run halfway house for women who are struggling to overcome drug addiction or a dependency on survival sex work, despite the fact that neither of these criteria applied to me. I phoned someone I knew and asked to stay with them for two weeks instead. Both he and his roommate made multiple unwanted sexual advances on me before I left without support from welfare or knowing where I could even go from there. That’s when I met the meth addicts who brought me to a derelict house where they said I could stay. That was the day I became homeless a second time.
We had no power, no heat, and no hot water. The basement had twice caved in and been propped back up, leaving the earth exposed in the pitch black from the bottom of the stairs. The tenants, who had sold the property and subsequently rented it from the person who purchased it, buried and dug out their personal items in the basement “walls” on a daily basis. Everyone else brought in money for their share of meth by breaking into homes in the neighbourhood and committing petty theft for pawn shop items, until one of them got the brilliant idea of hammering down copper piping in the homes they were breaking into. I tried to get help for myself from anyone I could, and resorted to picking bottles and cans out of public trash. When I asked one of the neighbours if I could borrow his phone to call about an apartment, he tried to use his body — three times the size of me — to barricade me in his home once I was inside. That man later attempted to hit me with his truck outside the flea market where I was getting help to eat and stay warm. And to make matters even worse, the housemates became increasingly threatening and invasive as time passed.
I slept in a tent on a mattress I pulled out of the trash down the street, in constant fear and with nowhere else to go. They took my food, stole my (stolen) bike, and threatened me with sexual assault. When I felt legitimately threatened, no one in the first 6 houses I ran to on that street would answer the door, and when the police finally arrived, they told me they would press charges on his behalf if I insisted on pressing charges against him. They came back the next day and served us all with an eviction notice from the city, and a notice of condemnation on the property. We were all fucked. One of them lit the inside of the house on fire and the whole structure was torn right out of the ground within a month, just two weeks after I finally made my escape by desperately pleading for help from the pastor of a nearby evangelist church.
Anger, Shame, and Grief
I am haunted to this day by these memories — these experiences my own mother thought were just what was expected of me. I chose to struggle through these experiences, as hard as it was to do, over the relatively higher risks of living with my biological relatives a second time; where I was also robbed of my potential, along with any sense of autonomy, hope, or the capacity to reach out for help. I am alive today because I made that choice. I am wholly certain I wouldn’t have made it this far if I had acted differently. I feel anger of astronomical proportions, just thinking back to my own mother telling me to my face that she had become convinced 8 years ago that I was buried on the pig farm. Not only was Pickton already arrested before I became homeless the first time, but I was 500 miles away and she knew all of this. If only that was the end of my fury, but this is just one symptom of pathetic dysfunctional behaviour that has plagued me for my entire lifetime. It enrages me that my father couldn’t once look me in the eye in the last ten years without being reduced to total silence, letting his crocodile tears well up before he looks away because he can’t bear the sight of me since I moved away of my own free will.
I absolutely refuse to feel ashamed of my trans identity, of my life’s history, of my historical roots, or my need to cut myself away from anyone who feels entitled to tell me otherwise. I will not live in denial, in a state of eternal silence, and without any power or autonomy over myself and my life. The cost to engage in the battle for my freedom has been high, but I now have my life and my voice. Never again will I allow someone to take them from me — neither family, nor stranger.