[Editor’s note: Christy, whose last name we are withholding for privacy, lived in Victoria, B.C., and had spent decades working as a fundraiser for various organizations. After becoming homeless at age 60, she spent the final months of her life working on a University of Victoria research project with Audrey Tung and Kendall Fraser, both UVic graduate students in geography and social dimensions of health, respectively. Christy worked with Tung and Fraser on a community-based research project about older women’s experiences of homelessness, and she brought her personal experiences to the work.
In May 2022, Christy received an eviction notice from a landlord after she had fought for over two years to secure rental housing following her first instance of homelessness in 2019. Shortly after, she took her own life. “Her final act of control over her life was, arguably, to end it before falling back into homelessness,” write Tung and Fraser.
“In life and in death, Christy always resisted stereotypes of homelessness and insisted upon respecting each person’s diversity and dignity. We share Christy’s story so that we can do the same for her.”
The researchers would like to thank Denise Cloutier, the principal investigator of their research project; project co-ordinator Ruth Kampen; and housing advocate Nicole Chaland. The project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and Island Health.]
We’ll remember Christy for her analytical mind, her empathetic ear and her dedication to giving back. She took pride in her work, and shared with us once that if she knew research was a possibility at the outset of her career, she would have jumped right in. “I’d be the next Brené Brown!” she said.
But Christy started as a researcher in her 60s, a newfound line of work that also held personal significance. The former fundraising director had lived experience in the study topic: homelessness and housing insecurity in older women. Older women without housing represent a growing yet overlooked population with unique needs and perspectives that Christy helped illuminate.
The homeless-serving sector is largely designed for chronically homeless populations that primarily consist of middle-aged men. Women are often “invisibly homeless” because they typically engage with housing services only after exhausting informal supports, including friends and family, couch-surfing and sleeping in cars.
Housing services also frequently exclude older adults who may require tailored medical care, as well as nutrition, mobility supports and avenues for social engagement. In general, emergency and transitional housing environments are unable to meet older women’s needs for stability, safety and autonomy within one’s home.
“This research will benefit me, as well as a growing number of women,” she said. “I really believe that this cohort needs to be factored in as ‘affordable’ housing is built.”
Christy’s experiences inspired her to stand in solidarity with other individuals who have been homeless. Later on in the pandemic, she was a frontline peer support worker who helped to house people from park encampments in Victoria.
Understanding the frustration of navigating these systems from doing so herself, Christy brought a humane lens forged through lived experience into her peer support work. This is a perspective that she believed to be missing from housing services that she found to be neglectful and, at its worst, patronizing or stigmatizing.
She advocated for a person-centred approach that attends to the specific needs, histories and circumstances of the individuals using the housing services. “Everybody’s different, so you learn what’s the best way to communicate with an individual,” she said. “[It’s about] really understanding where they’re coming from and what they need in that moment and in general.”
She was committed to changing the dehumanizing nature of a homeless-serving system that she had entered for reasons beyond her control, as is usually the case for people who lose their housing.
Christy had trouble recovering from a surgery that propelled her into cycles of alcohol use and detox, preventing her return to work. When a promising job opportunity arose, she moved from the Lower Mainland to Sidney, B.C.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, the job fell through, an abusive roommate kicked her out of their shared housing and her money for a hotel ran out. Then Christy checked into an emergency shelter in Victoria. She was 60 years old.
It was a “perfect storm” that coincided abruptly with the pandemic. But it had arguably brewed for much longer, beyond the horizon of public visibility, over a lifetime of accumulating vulnerabilities.
Throughout their lives, women on average contend with lower wages and smaller pensions, exclusion and discrimination in housing markets, and the greater risk of gender-based violence that makes their housing unsafe or untenable.
Research suggests that social disadvantages such as these frequently culminate in crisis later in life. This is a time when older women may struggle with declining health and mobility, meaning they may be less able to maintain and rely on diffuse social networks for support.
If they lose their housing, they often must then turn to social services and non-profit agencies that they may be unaccustomed to using.
A perpetual applicant
Christy is no stranger to bureaucracy, having co-ordinated multimillion-dollar fundraising budgets during her career. But navigating byzantine welfare, labour and housing systems for meagre aid would prove to be much more challenging.
“One of the things that I find frustrating about the system in general when trying to get in somewhere is that every one of them has different rules,” she said. “So it took two phone calls a day on a daily basis until finally there was a bed available, and it was like, ‘can you be here at 2:00?’ That’s how it works.”
She reckoned that navigating service systems would be much more difficult for many other older women who lack technological access or knowledge. “I mean I got frustrated, but I had a laptop.”
Christy became a perpetual applicant: overqualified for many jobs, discriminated against due to age for others and denied twice for disability assistance while she deciphered how to apply for the Canada Pension Plan and long social housing lists.
It was an extremely complicated process that seemed to fail those for whom the system was designed to serve. “It’s not just the couple pieces of paper,” Christy said.
“I’ll say, ‘OK, I want to apply for CPP. Where do I go?’ And they’ll say, ‘Go here.’ And then I go there and they say, ‘Well, we don’t do that — try this place.’ And then I try that. This actually has happened to me multiple times,” she said.
“So I go to that place and they say, ‘well, we can’t really help you with that, but you can do it online. Have a nice day.’”
Surviving homelessness — let alone leaving it — is hard work. This reality has been obscured by the ideology of “free-market” capitalism, which frames the task of meeting basic needs as an individual, rather than social, responsibility. It blames the victims of systemic disadvantage and discrimination through ascribing longstanding and entrenched structural deficiencies (like an inadequate social safety net) to so-called personal shortcomings (such as substance use or “laziness”).
It shames usage of social programs and services, which are themselves often attached to restrictive, disciplinary and disempowering conditions as well. In these systems, people can be dehumanized, and their human rights, including their right to housing, can go unrecognized. These attitudes are engrained institutionally, interpersonally and internally. Pervasive stigma and discrimination, both experienced and anticipated, alienated Christy from those closest to her.
“I had two friends that were like 30-plus-year friends, and they both dumped me because I was an alcoholic — one by text and the other by email,” she said. “I found myself just being embarrassed about being homeless and still using alcohol so I was not in touch with people. Even my family.”
For someone as independent as Christy, what was just as damaging as the loss of social connection was the loss of her personal capacity.
Women who are homeless, particularly from older generations, often feel additional shame in the service environment because of social expectations that women provide care instead of receive it. Many women, like Christy, thus avoid asking for help even when they need it most.
“I never want to impose on anyone ever and believe myself to be self-sufficient. And so I don’t think it occurred to me to prevail on the kindness of somebody else to take me in,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Okay, well, I’m gonna get an apartment and a job and all of that,’ and of course that didn’t happen.”
The straightforward path to success, driven by personal industriousness alone and unencumbered by social barriers, is as mythical as consumer “freedom” in an unaffordable housing market. It was not the reality, even for someone as self-reliant as Christy, who internalized the stigma that was attached to her deviance from this trajectory.
The pandemic has highlighted that existing social supports have been largely inadequate for guiding people out of homelessness, many of whom become further indentured within unsuitable housing services and environments.
Christy, for instance, was denied a subsidized apartment in a regional Housing First program that deemed her two months of sobriety insufficient.
Ironically, her history of alcohol use was initially exacerbated by the distress of staying in emergency and transitional housing facilities.
‘I was literally afraid for my life’
As with most people entering the shelter system, Christy began in a “low-barrier” emergency shelter that is open to everyone. While these environments are supposedly universal, they are frequently dangerous or unsuitable for people with specific needs for their safety and well-being, including women and older adults.
The “low-barrier” approach appeared to be quite literal, with nothing but three cubicle walls and a shower curtain separating Christy from the chaos. She could hardly venture out to the showers, where some people slept instead of in their cubicles. These enclosures, they probably figured, were hardly distinguishable anyway.
People perceived to be vulnerable are frequently targeted in instances of exploitation, harassment, theft and violence during experiences of homelessness. Studies have documented the pervasive victimization of older adults, women and other marginalized populations in shelter environments.
Older women in shelters inhabit the intersection of multiple systems of oppression, including violence based on gender, age and disability.
Christy had her wallet stolen, had her underwear stolen, had experienced unwelcome sexual advances and had panic attacks, all while having no one she felt she could turn to.
“I was literally afraid for my life,” Christy said. “I pretty much stayed in my little cubicle for a month and slept a lot because I was too afraid to interact. It was depressing.”
Pre-existing challenges within the shelter system were exacerbated during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when people using shelters, including Christy, were frustrated and confused with new and evolving regulations. Meanwhile, shelters themselves were largely unprepared and under-resourced to deal with these rapid changes and increased demand in emergency housing services.
Initially, Christy coped by drinking to “numb out everything that was going on.” But soon, she found that this was inadequate to deal with the stresses of the shelter environment. When her desire to leave became stronger than her desire to drink, she stopped her reliance on alcohol for a period of time. This was another thing that she had to achieve on her own, since the substance use programs available to Christy had also been unsuitable and unsafe for her.
But substance use, similar to housing insecurity, was a challenge that she could not fully overcome in the absence of adequate social supports.
Fragmented, paradoxical systems
Christy managed the remainder of her stay in shelters by strategically suppressing or emphasizing aspects of her identity to draw less attention to herself. She changed her appearance to “fit in,” and also adopted the pseudonym of “Christine” to compartmentalize her identity in homeless shelters. Contrary to convention, Christy’s name is not an abbreviation, but the full form, reflecting her Scottish heritage. It is familiar yet non-conforming, much like Christy herself, who subverts dominant narratives about who can become homeless.
When she “couldn’t take it anymore,” Christy spent several weeks calling “different places with different rules,” then proceeded to move into one shelter after another. This is a reality of the shelter system, in which many people are shuffled around as they wait for years, and in some cases over a decade, to secure long-term affordable housing.
Oftentimes, they struggle to navigate a fragmented system that also exhausts their capacities to do so.
The pandemic triggered an additional influx of people onto housing waitlists, which typically prioritize families with children and people who are unsheltered and chronically homeless. Christy, who entered into homelessness later in her life, did not fit into those categories.
As an older woman, she could not afford to work her way through the system and wait indefinitely for permanent housing. And the majority of long-term non-market housing for single individuals consists of supportive housing, which is often characterized by constant surveillance, authoritative rules and a lack of safety. For many older women like Christy, supportive housing would not represent a “home.”
Even as Christy cycled through temporary spaces, she persisted in her search for employment. After staying in a transitional housing facility where she had a higher degree of privacy and stability, she returned to market rental housing and secured a job working for a health charity.
But these journeys rarely reach tidy conclusions, given the precarious nature of housing and labour markets today.
The homeless-serving system is fraught with paradox. It establishes structural barriers that exclude, yet uses shower curtains as walls that expose. It offers scarce support when it is requested and intervenes in ways that are sometimes harmful. It puts individuals under the same roof while simultaneously fragmenting the various housing and wraparound services they need. It preaches personal responsibility, yet decreases personal capacity. It reinforces stereotypes about homelessness and fractures individual identity. A systematic shift toward a trauma informed, culturally safe and person-centred approach is needed.
After fighting to exit homelessness on her own, Christy later lost her job in a labour market that did not appear to value older women’s wealth of knowledge and talents. Even for those who are able to resolve their own homelessness like Christy, older women’s housing, livelihoods and lives themselves often remain precarious.
With a sudden eviction notice following over two years of work to secure a stable place to live, Christy lost her housing in an unaffordable housing market that prioritizes commodification over compassion. That’s when Christy took her own life.
She couldn’t take it anymore. And neither should we.