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Ending stigma: A Kelowna woman's experience living in supportive housing

Lee is currently living at Ellis Place.
Lee is currently living at Ellis Place.
Image Credit: Journey Home

Lee’s lived through hard times. Homelessness, substance use and poverty have all been part of it, but some of the toughest things are surprising, like stigma and the hostility it creates.

Last winter, Lee split her time between the streets and a shelter, accessing the shelter only on the coldest nights, writes Stephanie Gauthier with Journey Home, a housing-first initiative in Kelowna.

“I was sleeping outside of a restaurant, right in front of it. It was freezing out that night and I slept under there with my hair dryer. They had a plug-in on the outside wall and I had a tarp and a blanket and I was sleeping underneath that and I had the hairdryer going on me all night to stay warm because I thought I was going to freeze to death,” Lee said to Gauthier.

READ MORE: Senior couple forced to live in tent at Vernon campsite

This was a hard night and it only got worse.

“This one fellow came out of the restaurant and he called me every name in the book and told me to get out of there, so I packed up and left,” she told Gauthier.

It wasn’t the first time Lee experienced poor treatment, she's witnessed plenty of examples of stigma but it still hurt.

“It just made me want to use more,” she said.

Unsheltered homelessness was hard but life in a shelter came with its own challenges. It’s hard to feel safe in a shelter, especially for women, Gauthier wrote.

Her health was another factor that made homelessness, and life in a shelter, more difficult. It’s also what brought her to Kelowna. She moved from Saskatchewan in 2021 based on an invitation from her cousin.

“I was in search of a better life,” she said. “I have an illness, my liver, and I wasn’t getting help medically in Saskatchewan or Manitoba.”

Lee’s cousin moved by the time she arrived, leaving her in a new city without a support structure. She experienced life without shelter as a result but her journey into homelessness started long before that.

READ MORE: Young couple with pet forced to live in a car in Kelowna

“I was pretty much born an alcoholic,” she said. “It sounds crazy to some people but my parents drank a lot, like a lot. My mother drank heavily while she was pregnant with me.”

Drugs, alcohol and poverty were part of Lee’s life from the beginning and her parents influenced her to use substances.

“I’ve been kind of a transient person my whole life,” she said to Gauthier. “I just worked and went from place to place to place, and when things didn’t work out I just kept persevering. I just kept on going.”

That path has led her to Ellis Place, a subsidized, supportive housing site in Kelowna. Life isn’t perfect, but it’s better. She has access to the staff and other supports in place at Ellis. She also has a community, Gauthier wrote.

“I like it here,” she said. “I love it, actually. It’s a lot better than where I was before. This is way better, way safer, and it’s a way nicer atmosphere here. Nicer people, everything.”

Lee still has health concerns – she’s hoping for a liver transplant – but she’s noticed some improvements since arriving at Ellis Place. She’s sick less, which she credits either to the food or reduced stress. The biggest change with her move to Ellis Place was a new sense of security and safety.

“I have a room with a secure door,” she said. “A door that locks.”

She’s happy with where she is, but she’s still tentative about the future. She’s joined a local community church where she volunteers. She faces a great deal of uncertainty still but she finds joy in her home and her church.

“It’s a start and I’m okay with that.”

Ellis Place opened in November 2020. It is operated by Canadian Mental Health Association and has 38 units of supportive housing for adults 19 years old and older.

Lee is currently living at Ellis Place.
Lee is currently living at Ellis Place.
Image Credit: Journey Home

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