Power Hour – Shelter Hopping with My Son

By Pearly May, DTES Power of Women Group

Pearly May

My son Ulrich and I were homeless a few years ago.

A worker at the Collingwood Neighbourhood House found us a space at the Powell Street Shelter. I imagined that the shelter would be a big warehouse with rows of cots, but I was relieved to discover that we would have our own room. I met other women with children and tried to get to know them so my son and I would not feel so alone. On any given day in Vancouver, there are approximately 40 families with children that are homeless, and women are the invisible homeless, over-represented in shelters and transitional housing.

The shelter was quite noisy. There was little privacy because the bedroom doors would not lock, and I had personal items stolen from our room. I also knew I was only allowed to stay for one month at the shelter, so I began actively applying for subsidized low-income housing.

My month at the Powell Street Shelter was nearing an end and I had not heard back from any of my housing applications. A counsellor made some calls to find me a new shelter. When the counsellor handed me the phone to speak with the shelter intake worker, the worker asked me if I was fleeing an abusive relationship. The counsellor, sitting next to me, could hear the question and nodded to indicate that I should say ‘yes’. Though I was uncomfortable about lying, I followed her direction and said ‘yes’. The intake worker then said they had a room for us. This shelter was located in South Vancouver.

Eventually my time at that shelter also ran out and I was back at the Powell Street Shelter for yet another month. I was so determined to get housing. I consistently phoned housing agencies looking for a space in social housing. I was so desperate that I even checked out single room occupancies, which are completely unsuitable for children. When I would call private rentals that were advertising in the newspaper, they would ask me if I was Aboriginal. When I answered ‘Yes, I am Aboriginal’, they would refuse to consider me as a tenant. One landlord told me that their last tenant was Native and partied too much and so he would not rent to me, which is a clear case of discrimination and stereotyping. I was walking around in the rain, without a jacket, and was diagnosed with pneumonia.

That month was hell and I shed so many tears. I was losing hope in finding a place. Being without housing and having my son and I go from shelter to shelter was creating really high levels of stress and anxiety for me. My school suffered and I felt like an inadequate mother who could not even provide a home for my son.

Just before the end of the month, I received a call from Lu’ma Native Housing who had a two bedroom apartment for us in the Commercial Drive area. Just in the nick of time!

My son and I finally have housing and are happy and healthy. Those several months were the equivalent of a life-time, but it was a journey and a stepping stone for where I am today.

Pearly May is from the Wetsuwet’en Territory. She is a single parent of one child and is an activist, artist, and volunteer in the Downtown Eastside. She is active through the Carnegie Community Centre, Vancouver Moving Theatre, and DTES Power of Women Group. She wants to give back to the Downtown Eastside community.

This column features the DTES Power of Women Group. We are or have been homeless. Many of us are single mothers or have had our children apprehended; most of us have chronic physical or mental health issues; many have addictions; and a majority have experienced sexual violence and abuse. For Indigenous women, we are affected by the legacy of residential schools.

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