Continuing our series of blogs written by folks in Edmonton with lived experience, meet, Nadine Chalifoux. Nadine is an independent advocate for housing, homelessness, health, Indigenous affairs, human rights, social injustice and women’s rights.
Twenty-four hours in a day can be the most exhausting 24 hours if you’re homeless. Seven years ago I was experiencing homelessness and if I could get into a women’s shelter for the night, it was a blessing. Although, one night in the women’s shelter can also mean multiple issues such as bed bugs, fights or my medication getting confiscated. There are other places I could go, except my options there could include getting assaulted, abused, no sleep and/or my belongings being rifled through. If I chose to stay outside, I could freeze to death and there’s a chance all of my belongings get stolen. However, being outside I get to choose where I sleep, how secure my space is, and whether or not I am with other people. The risk of sleeping outside in frigid temperatures is basically down to my survival from the cold. Ninety per cent of the time, outside was the safest, most secure, and comfortable place to lay my head regardless if it was +17, -17 or -30.
Lineup times for shelters range from 5:30 - 8 p.m. to secure a ‘bed.’ With only a handful of spots, it's best to show up a minimum of 3 hours early. I would start by standing in line at the women's shelter at 2 p.m., usually to only find out at 7 p.m. that I will not get in. So from there, I would walk 10 blocks to the Hope Mission and likely find 50 other people in line but I might get a spot on a mat on the women's side. Inside the Hope Mission, I put my shoes under my mat to keep them close so they don’t get stolen or in case I need to run to defend myself from getting hurt. My shoes also serve as a nice pillow underneath the flat mat I’ve been provided to sleep on. I would wake up frequently through the night bothered by the religious ideology forced upon me when I needed to be sleeping. Wake up time is 6 a.m. and you must be out by 7 a.m. This includes a brief washing in a bathroom, grabbing my belongings (hoping they are still all there) and quickly eating breakfast. My items remain in a locked cage overnight which workers allow others to enter the area to grab their own items, however no one monitors whether they happen to rifle through other people's belongings too.
Sleeping in shelters is still a luxury, don’t get me wrong. If I was unable to secure a ‘bed,’ I had to wander the city to find a place that might actually be safe to fall asleep and not be woken up by thieves, assaulters, police or other people. This can take hours to negotiate. As the night falls darker and the temperature gets cooler, I have to decide how tired I am. If I find fellow homeless folks I trust, I might sleep near their camps or depending on the temperatures I might need to find cardboard, newsprint, tarps and garbage to help protect me from the cold. Many times, this would be the place I could finally rest - but by the time I can lay my head it’s 5 a.m. I can sleep for maybe two or three hours before I am amongst the public.
It's a challenge and with the continued lack of sleep, many issues can arise especially if I forget to take my medication due to extreme fatigue. I become irritable, frustrated, alienated as well as anxious. My trust slowly breaks every time I have to find my bed for the night, as there have been so many times I have wandered non-stop with no sleep. The worst stretch of time being 72 hours without rest. Imagine the trauma that can cause a person? A healthy person with a home and access to food and water would become ill if they were to go 72 hours without sleep. The same scenario to someone who has no home, warmth, security or food and water - you have someone who is likely on the brink of a breakdown or extreme substance abuse. After all, substances such as alcohol or drugs numb the system from surviving the elements or having to figure out every single minute of the 24 hour day. I've been fortunate to have a community of people experiencing homelessness who helped provide survival supports. Even if it was only four times a week, their support has also kept me from falling back on substance abuse and kept me emotionally positive. The struggle is real and it is traumatic. Homeless folks do what they need to do to survive. When you see your fellow Edmontonians suffering from addictions or sleeping in the street, it doesn’t mean they are lazy or selfish. They are surviving.
Edmonton City Scene photo courtesy City of Edmonton.