Hidden homelessness at Ryerson

This article was the winner of the Anne Goldman Award in 2019.

By Giulia Fiaoni At 18 years old, Emily Wright was an expert in knowing where she could and could not sleep outside on Ryerson campus.


After many attempts at sleeping in other locations, downtown and around Ryerson, she found that the northern Gerrard St. E. entrance of Kerr Quad was the only location where security did not bother her.


The usual setup was to lay underneath the arch of the Kerr Quad entrance, on top of flattened cardboard boxes, using her bag as pillow.


“There were times where you didn’t know if you were going to wake up in the morning, because it was so cold outside…you just had to pray that you were going to be able to wake up.”


She remembers sleeping on the cold, cement ground.



“I guess there’s something comforting, when you are lying down on the ground, to slowly move your fingers over the cement to ground yourself a little bit. To remind yourself that you’re safe. I remember doing that in the middle of the night.”


During that time, she says she was encompassed by feelings of being stuck, isolated, and broken in world that was continuously moving around her.


“No matter what my life was like with no one talking to me, I heard that the world was still moving; I heard people talking, I heard traffic, I heard cars, I heard families laughing and talking about their lives. It was always interesting to realize that my life felt like it was going nowhere, but everyone else’s was still going.”


Besides the sounds of a bustling city, she details the persistent smells of exhaust fumes, harsh winter air, and food cooking at nearby restaurants.


“When I was really hungry, I swear I could smell the pizza from the Big Slice Pizza store, which was located on Yonge Street, billowing down the street, right into my nostrils. It seems like those food scents were almost stronger the hungrier that I was…even if it was three blocks away, I swear I could smell it, and I needed it.”


There were nights where she stayed with a group of around six other people. Wright remembers one person staying up to keep watch while the rest slept.


She says that the nights where she slept alone were especially daunting.


“The whole world was ending their day and mine, I felt like was just beginning. I had to make it through the night sleeping on the streets, which meant sleeping with one eye open and constantly on guard.”


She says she made sure to always sleep with her shoes on because there was a high possibility that they would otherwise be stolen by morning.


Wright says that she found comfort in knowing her things were with her at all times and consistently woke up panicked throughout the night, thinking that her things had been stolen.


“I was always having my hand on my backpack, making sure that those things were close to me.”


For months, Wright slept rough and unsheltered on the campus she would be attending as an honour student only eight years later.


“To flash forward to later on as a student there, it was pretty empowering to be like, I once slept here and now I’m a student here.”

***


Pascal Murphy has been teaching the Homelessness in Canadian Society course at Ryerson University for the past 10 years.


“People often understand homelessness or think about homelessness as something very much that is ‘out there.' The reality is that this experience that we know people unfortunately go through is very much connected to us, it’s not something separate from us.”


Murphy says it’s not uncommon for 20 to 25 per cent of his class to have experienced homelessness.


“In a class of 40 people, I've certainly had it where at least 10 of them have at some point in their life experienced homelessness.”


Approximately 2.3 million Canadians aged 15 and over reported having to “temporarily live with family, friends, in their car, or anywhere else because they had nowhere else to live” at some point in their life, according to Statistics Canada.



Murphy says that there’s a difference between “houselessness” and “homelessness”.

He defines homelessness as someone experiencing a home environment that is some combination of lacking in safety, security, health or affordability, not just the absence of a physical shelter.


Murphy says that people’s lack of understanding of who experiences homelessness and how it’s experienced contributes to the overall stigma surrounding the issue.


“Sometimes it’s the very person you might be sitting beside in one of your focus groups, studying for your exam, and you will never know because it’s such a stigmatized reality that people will be very hesitant to disclose because of the stigma.”


He says that since the beginning, his classroom has acted as a safe space for students to communicate their experiences with homelessness. He has always made himself available for having one-on-one talks with students outside of class.


Murphy’s advocacy for social justice goes beyond the classroom. Alongside being an award-winning instructor, he is also president of the St. Clare's Multifaith Housing Society board, a non-governmental and nonprofit affordable and supported housing provider.


***

Wright took Murphy’s class seven years ago, roughly seven years after she had experienced homelessness.


She says she experienced homelessness as a teenager because she was addicted to drugs.

Growing up in Toronto in an affluent family, she attended a variety of private schools across the city.


“I guess my journey really started when I was bullied as a child and that really sort of set my confidence. It really pulled a part of me, sort of broke a part of me, being bullied at a young age.”


She says her experiences being bullied emphasized the feeling of never really fitting in.


“On my journey just before high school began, I had my first boyfriend and was sort of thinking, maybe things are going to go really well with my life. I started high school and I ended up getting raped by my boyfriend.”


The following day at school, Wright was ignored by her peers. She says she was soon considered to be the “slut of the school.”


“I didn't tell anyone about it and that really spiraled me into experimenting with drugs and alcohol when I went to a new school.”

***


Julia Martin, a current Ryerson social work student, was 15 years old when she first experienced homelessness.


“My father was extremely abusive, more physically...Meanwhile, my mom was abusive times ten, a million times worse; emotionally, physically, psychologically, and every year it got worse.”


Martin says she was about 15 years old when her mother chased her and her brother out of the house, threatening them to never come back.


“I took 10 minutes to grab anything that I could in plastic bags. And then I left. That was the last time I saw my mom.”


Martin couchsurfed from house to house for about two years, while still attending high school and working as much as she could.


When she was around 17, she made enough money to share a townhouse with two other strangers who were in their 30s. She lived with them for roughly 6 months.


Martin continues her story carefully. She warns that she might get emotional when recalling the following details.


“The roommates I had to live with at that time...the first one committed suicide and then a month later, the next one left me a suicide letter…”


She explains how the second roommate attempted suicide. Martin explains how the roommate's brain damage from the attempt was so severe that she could not remember who Martin was when she returned to the unit.


Martin pauses and continues speaking more slowly.


“So from that moment, I would be walking outside because you can't be in a house where someone had just died and then the other person is almost dead and doesn't remember who you are.”


She says that she would walk for hours throughout the night.


“Outside was a better alternative at that time, not sleeping outside, because as soon as I sleep outside, then I am bringing myself down to that stereotype that I couldn't be a part of, so I would rather walk.”


Martin is now 24 and says she’s the closest she’s been in five years to experiencing homelessness again. She says this uncertainty is causing her to have “constant breakdowns.”

She applied for about 40 different jobs in the month of January and was struggling to find work because she is a full-time student.


“I knew that by next month, I would be homeless if I didn't start having an income. So I got a job, part-time, something I would never do, like food prep work. But it's cool. I don't give a fuck. Give me any job.”


“That's also a thing; if you've been homeless, you'll fucking take any job in the world. Any job. I didn't care. I was like, sign me up. I don't care...I just don't want to be that again.”


Martin says that even in the midst of financial instability she still manages to do volunteer street outreach to help those who are currently experiencing homelessness, like she was five years ago.

***


Wright and Martin, although at different times, both took Murphy’s course.


They emphasize that being white and identifying as female gave them privilege that may have helped them escape homelessness quicker than those who are not of the same demographic.

Murphy explains how his course challenges popular assumption and illustrates how homelessness exists across all demographics. He says he does this through guest speakers who bring in a variety of different perspectives.


Wright says that Murphy places her lecture towards the beginning of the semester to demonstrate that privilege and oppression can and do co-exist.


She says she was challenged by some of the guest speakers she listened to during her time enrolled in the course back in 2012.


“He had all of these guest speakers, and...I remember one day I left a little early and he emailed me just to check up on me and I was like ‘no I'm not OK.”


Wright says she told Murphy that the lecture content detailing experiences of homelessness was triggering for her because she had lived through similar circumstances.


Wright says that Murphy was not aware of the fact that she had experienced homelessness prior to emailing her to check in.


“You know, he was really understanding, really great. He bought me lunch. And I was like, just don't tell anyone [about my experiences],” Wright says starting to laugh.


Both Wright and Martin are now consistent guest speakers in Murphy’s class.


“He's a very non-judgment, open person and so is his partner, Sarah, who I talked to also many times. When you’re speaking, they’re really listening, they’re there, they're attentive, they're caring,” says Martin.


She says how the accepting environment of Murphy’s classroom is why she is sure that guest speakers continue to come back to speak.


***

Valerie Bruce, assistant director of Housing Operations and Administration at Ryerson, says this year she has witnessed an increase in students disclosing their experiences with homelessness.


Bruce says she thinks that this increase is not evidence of more people experiencing homeless than before, but that it is a reflection of more people choosing to talk about it.

Ryerson currently does not have free housing readily available for students experiencing homelessness without a referral, but they do offer support through the Ryerson Safe House.

Safe House provides free short-term housing for Ryerson students living in unstable or unsafe conditions.


With a referral from a Ryerson counsellor, Safe House provides up to two weeks of free housing within Ryerson residence.


Bruce says that she encourages students to continue reaching out, specifying that “we can only help who we know.”


***


Now 33 years old and a successful youth advocator, public speaker, and early childhood educator, Wright reflects on her first day attending Ryerson in 2011 as an undergraduate student.


The first class she attended was an English literature course located in the Victoria Building.


“I never imagined in my entire life I’d make it to university and so to actually stand on the campus, realizing that I might actually have a future and have a purpose, filled me with this joy that I don’t think that I had felt in a long time.”


Wright says it took her awhile to “walk with confidence” when traveling from classroom to classroom.


She says she was still looking over her shoulder, fearing the security guards that were now looking out for her safety, not kicking her off campus.


Wright graduated from Ryerson in 2014, a decade after she was sleeping at the entrance of Kerr Quad.


“I don’t know how to describe it other than surreal. It was from one extreme to the other.”

© 2018 New Wave Magazine

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