Saturday, August 25, 2007

Taking care of business

Betsy is 60. She's never been homeless before. Never before had to face each day fearful that she might not have a place to sleep that night.

A year ago, she stumbled into the shelter. She'd been evicted. Her common-law husband of 25 years had just died. He'd always paid the bills. Always taken care of 'things'. They'd never had a lot of money. But they'd gotten by.

And then one morning she awoke and he kept sleeping. Forever. With his passing, her financial resources evaporated. His son took control of his father's affairs, forcing Betsy to the street.

Two weeks ago, Betsy got a job at the shelter. On September 1st, she'll be moving into her own apartment, a subsidized one bedroom in a three storey walk-up owned by the shelter. It's in a quiet, older neighourhood. Lots of trees. Walking distance to downtown, to Betsy's job.

Betsy is happy.

"You know, when I came to this place I was terrified I'd die here, and fast," she told me yesterday as we chatted in the laundry room where she works. "I was so scared something awful would happen to me." She smiles and carefully folds a pillow case smoothing it out as she lays it on top of a pile of neatly folded laundry. Her smile broadens. "And now, the best thing possible has happened to me." With a sweep of her left arm she surveys the laundry area. "I've got a job. And soon, I'll have a place of my own."

Life for Betsy since she quit school and married at 17 has been a rocky road pitted with the effects of lack of education, a disruptive marriage and addiction. Somewhere along the way she kicked the addiction. But not until she'd lost her kids to family services. She'd never had to lose her belief that she could support herself without a man -- she'd never believed she could.

"I was a kid when I got married," she says. "I really only worked once, just after my divorce. I had three kids. No education. My independence didn't last long. Alcohol kinda got in my way. The kids were taken and then Chuck and I hooked up. Well, he did it all. But you know what?" Her blue eyes look into mine, their gaze intent. Fierce. Steady. "I can take care of me. I just want a place where I can go inside, lock the door and be on my own."

I remember Betsy when she first came to the shelter. A co-worker had brought her into my office. Her eyes were scared. She clutched her brown handbag tightly on her lap. She fidgeted. Her story was unclear. A partner who'd died. A son-in-law who had all the rights. She had no resources. "I don't understand how this can happen," she kept repeating. I called a friend at Legal Aid. Betsy told them her story and they tried to help. But there's been no resolution yet. They did get her back into the apartment so she could get some of her things. But she couldn't stay there. The rent was overdue. She had no money.

And so she stayed on at the shelter.

At first, Betsy sat at a table in the day area and told her story to anyone who would listen about what had happened to her. "I don't belong here," she kept repeating. No one disagreed. No one believes they belong in a shelter. Then again, no one does.

She was sleeping in an emergency bed at the time. Lining up every night to get a ticket. And then, she got a transitional bed. She quit lining up. Betsy knew where she'd be sleeping that night, and the next, and the next.

For Betsy, that transitional bed opened the door to her thinking about her life beyond homelessness. To life beyond her fear that she would be spending the rest of her days in a shelter. She started volunteering. Helping out in the kitchen. Serving meals. Cleaning tables. She started interacting with staff. Asking questions. Asking for help. Betsy started turning up for herself.

"I remember sleeping on the third floor [Emergency sleeping quarters at the shelter] those first weeks," she says. "I was so scared. And then, when I applied and got a bed on the fifth, [the floor with transitional beds for women] I couldn't believe it. I mean, I had my own bed. My own locker. Sure, the other girls are jealous of me moving out. But I've done this for me. I've been the one who kept volunteering. Kept getting involved. I'm the one who's made this happen for me. I just wish the others weren't so jealous."

I remind her that someone else's opinion of her is not the one that counts -- hers is. "You've worked hard for this Betsy. You deserve it."

She smiles. "I opened my own bank account," she says proudly. "Never had that before. I've got a goal. Never had that before either."

"What's your goal?" I ask.

Her smile broadens into a mischievous grin. I see the Betsy from long ago, the young girl she describes as part feisty go-getter, part smart ass. "I'm getting on my feet so that I can get off my feet," she says. "I want to sit back in my own easy chair and give myself a break."

She's 60. Life has never been a bed of roses. But she doesn't care. She's making her way. Turning up for herself and making a difference. She knows where she's going, and she's getting there on her own two feet.

The question is: Where does life knock you down? Are you sitting back waiting for someone to come knocking with your answers or are you asking yourself the question, "What do I need to do to create the life of my dreams?" and then doing it, regardless of the potholes yawning before you?

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