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The Face of Homelessness
By Claire Wang
The traces of exhaled cold condensation can be seen from afar as people breathe out in admiration of the snowfall. As the smell of pine and roasted chestnut permeate the air, the blooming poinsettia flowers prelude the beginnings of Christmas. The season of gift-giving, family, social, and symbolic cheer are often connotative of peaceful festivities. Two days before Christmas, these tranquil times were suddenly halted when Chris Danielsen arrived home to an uneasy quietness. There was nothing to conjecture about the situation. An orderly house, family, marriage, and two businesses were the foundation of her daily life. She pulled into the driveway with her son after taking him to his basketball practice. After some brief conversation at the driveway at home, her son hopped into his father’s car, and they drove away faster than one could think twice about the situation. In confusion, she walked up towards the door and found her once-bustling household eerily empty.
A year after this life-altering event, amidst blocked finances by her now ex-husband, Chris found herself faced with an ever-growing wall. While in the thralls of trauma, she had to go through storage room papers and records to mediate the ongoing crisis. Concurrently, Chris was in the progress of losing custody of her children due to housing instability. Although she had chaired the homelessness committee in her community, the thought never occurred that she would one day need to access it for herself.
Three and a half years of couch surfing, sleeping in her vehicle, and even sleeping in the Walmart parking lot at 55 years old were adversities worsened by a lack of formal supports that did not account for her situation. Resources that she needed were primarily incompatible with her past financial background. Her prior economic stability made receiving any amount of income support a significant ordeal. Five to six times, she recalled to the income assistance office to receive a single check.
The aging in right place (AIRP) partnership seeks to support older adults to age-in-place for as long as possible in their homes and communities. Building capacity in promising practices that support older people experiencing homelessness is crucial in promoting healthy aging. The involvement of older persons with experiences of homelessness (OPEH) is pivotal in formulating promising practices that involve understanding unique lifestyles, vulnerabilities, and life course perspectives. Having had the opportunity to meet Chris virtually on Zoom, one of our project’s OPEH advisors, she detailed her journey of resiliency and fortitude after a life-altering event.
These lived experiences are crucial to understanding better what aging in right place can mean and the paths to facilitating this process. For Chris, she detailed the difficulties she faced when her right to age in place was taken away. Couch surfing, which might have kept a roof over her head at times, was an uncomfortable experience in a space that you recognize as not your own. She had been told to “go get a job” while seeking support. The stigmas of homelessness did not leave her in these ever-changing unfamiliar spaces that she wandered through while searching for stability: a permanent solution to temporary dwelling.
Empathy and compassion, Chris mentions, is one of the biggest takeaways that social work students need to know about working with older adults. She currently works two jobs but details the difficulties of rebuilding her retirement plan and keeping a roof over her head. Each path and step has been an uphill battle. For most people, heading to a meeting with an outreach worker may seem simple. However, for those facing housing insecurity, it could mean running to the store to fax documents, needing a ride, social connections supporting you through these processes, taking days off to make it to these appointments, and other situations. Getting consistently turned away due to the lack of housing funds at outreach centres is an accustomed practise, same with others giving up their spots thinking they do not need it as much as others. The fight over having a fundamental right of shelter or feeling that you do not deserve it is often not seen by the public eye. To receive housing, get settled, and have the foundation to rebuild one’s life is not a simple nor a linear process.
The experiences of homelessness are vast and far-reaching, and everyone has the risk of experiencing it. In Chris’ case, she shares how she is not the familiar face of what people think homelessness is. This change in narrative, passion for educating others, and empowering people are what Chris strives to do with her experiences firsthand. Chris is currently an outreach housing worker who seeks to fill gaps in accessing housing for others facing homelessness, while advocating for power and knowledge among women. She has created a filing system, the PNK files, to assist others in having all the paperwork figured out before a crisis occurs. Through her own experiences with mental health, she hopes to support others during times of trauma and set them up for success. You can find more information on her Lady Boss radio series, PNK files, and other empowering ventures at her website http://misschrissyd.com/. By openly sharing her personal journey of housing insecurity and helping those experiencing similar issues, Chris continues to challenge the stigmas, stereotypes, and the face of homelessness.