Extended interview

In March 2021, Chris Reid sat down with a few colleagues at Housing First to hear what they thought about the difference between housing and home-ing. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Chris Reid: So, as I told you, the project is looking at homelessness and homeless issues, and I wanted to get some perspective from a lived experience as well as from the social service provider perspective. One of the things we talked about, Kris, was feelings about home or where you had control. I think that would be a good place to start.

Kris: I think it was control over what I had in the house. If I left my sweater on the couch, it was okay because it was where I lived. In the places I was couch surfing or squatting, you had to tuck all your stuff away because you were scared you would lose that stuff. Or coming home after work, and sitting on the couch and watching TV, and knowing that I’m not bothering anybody.

CR: There’s also an idea I’ve come across, that once someone pays something, they’re asked to leave.

K: I’d have friends who would say don’t worry about it, just stay here as long as you can and we’ll figure something out later. But then I would be called out, saying that I never contributed.

CR: That thing about owing, how on the streets everybody relies on everybody else. And then when someone gets a place, they’re expected to share, right?

K: Nothing’s free. That’s the biggest thing that I learned, and I think it hurts me past even my experience being homeless, when I was going through the really rough times. There’s nothing free. Everybody wants something from you, and everybody’s out to get something from you. Even after you get out of that life, you still believe that. One of the first things we noticed when we started Good Samaritan House, I found it so fascinating how six, seven people could sit in a circle and share a two-litre of beer. Knowing that the rest of the day, their cravings will be through the roof and they will want more beer. But they still share! Are they sharing because they care? Or, are they sharing because, next time you find five dollars, you buy the two-litre.

CR: I talked to a girl who’s relatively new in town. She’s like 18, 19-ish? She was telling me about how she’s had no problem with anybody on the streets, and how everybody’s sharing with her. So, what would she do to prevent that? Is she going to be able to say no to all of those people who are her support now?

K: To me it sounds like she still holds value in herself. I felt like the value of who I was wasn’t there anymore. I wasn’t substantial, I wasn’t that important. I would do whatever because I want to survive the day, or I want to get high, or I want to get drunk, or I want to stay somewhere. You’re always looking at the angle, and when you’re not in that broken place, you don’t need to look for it anymore. People are genuine. People are actually sincere--they’re real people, and they actually care. But when you’re in that broken part, you don’t see that anymore. You see they’re asking for your purpose. The woman you’re talking about, I think that she’s holding herself in a really good spot. And hopefully she steps forward before something makes her slip back, and then she starts dropping value.

Brie: I think that people in that situation need to still hold on to the thought, I’m out here for myself and I need to protect myself. You can still offer help to your friends and the people you’ve met along the way, but if you don’t protect your own other people are going to drag you down. Whether they are doing it maliciously or not.

K: We took a client this morning to see two places. One’s a house over on Rosser East. Nice little house, decent price, three bedrooms. A little out of the way, but not too bad. Then I took them to a place that’s like a block and a half from here. Tiny little apartment, the same price as the house, and instantly that individual chose that apartment. Even though they had stated before that they do not want to be in the downtown area because of all the problems and the trouble.

CR: So why do you think they chose that?

K: If this individual is not ready to get sober and be better, that’s exactly where they’re gonna want to be stationed. If that individual was ready to take the steps towards sobriety, they would have taken that place on Rosser in a heartbeat, because it’s further away from problems. They take that place a block and a half away, that’s saying I’m not ready to be sober and this is a perfect spot for me.

Ryan: The last individual we had in the house is a graduate. They’re now in college. A housing first graduate within just over a year. That’s a success house for us.

K: Meet them where they’re at, right? If they're not ready there’s no point.

CR: When I first started working at 7th street, I learned all my presumptions--you get put in your place a lot, right?

R: The bubble is burst.

CR: I live downtown, and I was saying to my client, well you know downtown is not so bad, right? It’s not that bad. Since I moved to Brandon I’ve always lived downtown, and it’s like, if you aren’t going out at night, like ridiculous hours, if you choose who you’re going to invite into your home, if you mind your own business, it’s really not that bad! And this woman was First Nations, and she looked at me and said, “Yeah that’s what white women always say.” Is there something cultural as well going on there?

K: I don’t believe so. In Brandon anyway, I see that yes, there is definitely a larger Indigenous factor that we do recognize. But if you watch the individuals who actually live downtown, and how they actually integrate together, there’s no colour difference. They treat each other as family, regardless.

R: I find that the clients, they don’t care if you’re white, purple, brown, or green, they look out for each other. Do you remember the 8th Street Bridge? I used to show kids this all the time, that there was actually a 48-pack of toilet paper shoved underneath it. It stayed there, but there would be a roll missing here and there. Because they looked out for each other, the whole pack never went missing. A 48-pack of toilet paper is over 20 bucks, and they all knew it was there and they would all just go and grab a roll. I thought that was pretty cool.

K: Trying to bring culture into recovery is one of the struggles we had. That’s what a lot of people want, and there’s lots of funding out there for Indigenous to get culture, or grants for cultural outreach. We’re assuming that, from an outside point of view, and hoping that they buy into that. In my opinion, this is no different than Christianity or religion. Youth for Christ first started Housing First, and they had a religious aspect that was part of it. Then they got their hand slapped because no, Housing First is not supposed to be based on that. Because you can’t force somebody to believe something just because you think it’s better for them in the long run. Well I’m Norwegian, so if I’m in trouble and I was going through my recovery and I live on the street, and someone comes up to me and says well you better learn about your background, you know, as a viking, or you’re never going to move forward. That’s trying to force feed it--it’s discouraging! And it’s definitely not welcoming. I think a lot of times we lose sight that it’s up to that individual to approach you on what they want to learn. It’s just like, if I tell someone that you better go to church on Sunday because you have to believe in God, that’s kind of force-feeding someone. I think it’s the same. That’s my opinion, I don’t know what you guys think.

R: Oh I agree.

CR: Someone said that they felt that some of the landlords who chose to work with harder-to-house people have dark histories of their own, or something in their background that makes them a little more understanding.

B: Some of them do, we’ve had a couple landlords share a little bit about their histories with us, and explain that that’s why they want to help others. Some people just think that the program’s great and they want to be part of it. But I think it helps. There’s more understanding from people that have similar backgrounds or just a bit more empathy.

R: Some people also just care. I’ve definitely had a couple landlords I can think off the top of my head, who have lived experience one way or another, so maybe they’re trying to, I dunno, correct their wrongs in life? By giving back, or paying it forward?

K: There is always a story behind someone, and the question is going to be, as we’re speaking to somebody who’s vulnerable in that moment, are we going to stop ourselves and take the time to remember that they’re behaving or acting a certain way because there is a story there. And we don’t. It’s hard, sometimes. Especially what we do, you know our empathy card runs out pretty quick some days. My empathy card for myself runs out pretty quick some days. So with that, how do you keep yourself in that moment? There’s a story behind every single action that you do. Individuals on the street it’s the same thing, and a lot of people write them off so bad. There is always a background piece to it that you don’t necessarily pay attention to either, that you don’t even understand.

CR: Again back to landlords and stories, one of our infamous landlords had one tenant for many many years, and he kept renting to this guy, despite the fact that the tenant had been incarcerated multiple times, the tenant had done damages, the tenant had started a business selling stolen property. But the thing is, 10 or 15 years ago, the landlord’s wife was getting out the truck, and she slipped, and this tenant caught her, and ever since then, he could do no wrong.

R: And I think that’s the perfect example of, you’ve seen somebody for who they truly are as opposed to seeing what they’re doing, right?

CR: Exactly.

K: It’s that there’s a reason, in his head.

CR: And it was caring, he really wants to house these guys. And give them their chance, despite all of the other stuff that we all know.

K: People knock the landlords, when their places aren’t the cleanest or the nicest, but you need those places. Just as much as you need a nicer place--you need those. I’m not saying that you want cockroaches or mice or bedbugs, but you do need those options. Because some individuals, that’s kind of the lifestyle they want to live. We all want something better for them, but it’s good to have those options.

R: You know some of them have that one bedroom, and they’re happy with that lifestyle.

CR: Yeah well that’s why, some people don’t want to leave those CHHA [Community Health and Housing Association] Shelters.

R: Easy to maintain! It’s one bedroom, T.V., toilet, what more do you need?

B: Well and if you’ve never maintained your own household before, it’s intimidating going into a big two bedroom apartment, beyond cleaning, but in general, there’s so much openness and so much space, it can be scary.

K: Also too, when you’re transitioning from a street life to housing, a home, and everything is pristine and really nice looking that’s scary! That would terrify the shit out of me! I want something that looks like it’s beat up a little bit, just in case I put a scratch in the wall or I drop my food on the ground. I don’t want something that’s immaculate. Like, I need to transition to get to that. Now, obviously I don’t want to live in a dumpster, but some people, that’s the lifestyle they choose and they can literally just go one step up from that and they’re home.

CR: So you were saying, you don’t want to move into a place that’s all perfect and clean and all--is it, do you think that has to do with self-esteem? Like, you don’t deserve it?

K: Yeah definitely, 100%.

B: That’d be a huge factor, yeah.

K: I once squatted at the Western Motel. I went in one side of the building, kicked in a window and put a mattress up against it, then I went down the hall and I stayed on the other side of the building, cause I’m being sneaky. Nobody knew I was in there. And I found it so fascinating, because there was still bedding in there. I was so excited that there was a blanket in there, and a bed, and a toilet, obviously no running water, but I was thrilled, because I had my own little spot, and nobody knew I was there, and I felt safe. It was a beat up hotel that was getting trashed--getting demolished soon. Later on in life, to just sit back and think about it even now--the insanity of how comfortable I was in that squat for the week or whatever it was that I stayed there. It still just baffles me. I think a lot of individuals that we see on the streets that we work with, they find that. Under the church, you know there’s a spot there with blankets. They find their own little spot, and they’re excited about it, and I think as a community we take that away from them a lot of times by telling them that that’s not something to be excited about. It’s not up to somebody else to tell me that I can’t be excited about squatting in the Western Motel, you know?

R: For example, the two individuals who sit beside the food bank. They were sitting there and she went over to the vendor, grabbed a Stone Cold, came back, sat down on the pallet, handed him the bottle. Then she grabs a blanket, pulls up the blanket--dirty old, muddy old thing--pulls it up the same way you’d be doing in the comfort of your own home, snuggling up with your spouse. The next day we went there, he’s cleaning out cans and joking that she made him clean up the yard.

K: We had an individual last summer who made himself known on 7th street with a tarp. Made himself very known, to everybody. And now all of a sudden the paper’s phoning. I’ve got individuals calling my boss and asking how we’re going to take care of him. The NRC’s getting phone calls, saying, hey, you should get Housing First up here and take care of this--you know, go help this guy. And it’s because he made himself known to the public because of what he put over top. But what’s the difference with him as opposed to the other 90 to 150 individuals that live in Brandon that are homeless that we’re aware of. Nobody was making a stink about them.

CR: The other question I was going to ask--some people that always have a ton of stuff, like a stroller full.

K: It’s the sense of having something. When I was on the street I had a duffel bag. That’s what I had--nothing. Every place I’d squat at or I’d couch surf at, I’d get less and less. So then when I started recovery or moving forward in life, well, shit. I think I own like 19 pairs of shoes now. Because I felt like I needed that! I needed that to fulfill a gap in me. I’ve got a huge selection of shirts, and I love collecting different hats! Because it makes me feel like I have something. Because at one point I had one hat, and it stunk, ‘cause I was sleeping with it outside.

CR: Back to the Western, I had a client who was--he had stayed in the Western before it shut down, and he had been evicted, but I don’t--did they have swipe cards? Or did they have keys?

B: I think they had keys.

CR: Cause he hadn’t bothered giving his key in. So when it shut down he went back with his key and got in. And he was living there for over a month. And he was--I guess there was electricity there at the time? He was really angry that someone else who was staying there would turn the lights on at night.

B: Yeah no kidding, give it away.

CR: We have to both take into account some of the ingenuity of these people too, and how they’re solving problems on the street.

K: Oh the survival is just fascinating. Individuals that--well let’s take Covid--Covid came to Brandon and right off the bat, everybody painted a picture of you better stay away from the homeless because they’re gonna have Covid. But the homeless in Brandon weren’t travelling anywhere, they’re not going on trips, they’re not going to Winnipeg. That picture of the homeless or the poor individuals of Brandon as the ones that were going to spread Covid was so misleading. Like, ridiculous. And the survival mode in that. These individuals made it almost a freakin’ year before anybody caught it downtown. But at this point we’re complaining because we can’t go sit in a restaurant, or the movie theatre’s closed, and we gotta stand in line at Walmart. Not eight months of actually surviving outside, with no diseases, in a lifestyle that you don’t think could be worse.