The Exposure Project is a community development initiative founded through Waterloo Region Community Legal Services. Its purpose is to create space for individuals with lived experiences of poverty and homelessness to share their stories. The project aims to increase the exposure of marginalized voices in the wider community, raise awareness of the realities that low-income populations experience, and help break the stigma associated with poverty and homelessness.
The stories you’re about to hear come directly from local community members of Waterloo region.
Melissa describes her story of living in generational poverty. “I grew up in a household where living pay check to pay check was the way of life.”
Melissa lives on her own. The market rent for her unit is $848 plus hydro. Melissa used to be on subsidized housing. However, due to administrative issues, she lost her subsidy and rent went from $85 back up to market rent. Melissa has been struggling to keep up with the rent and almost got evicted. To make matters worse, her rent will be going up by $10 in January as a result of rent freeze expiring at the end of 2021.
Melissa is currently on ODSP, but is also working at a local grocery store, where she makes the minimum wage of $14.60. With the minimum wage increase, she is concerned it will make things “that much more difficult.” Despite being employed as a part-time staff, Melissa has been working 11 days straight – interchanging between day, evening, and night shifts. It has been disrupting her sleep and affecting her mental health. However, Melissa is afraid to speak up about it because she is afraid to lose her job during the pandemic. “I cannot afford to lose the job.”
“It is really, really difficult to budget. You need to have two budgets to make sure you have enough at the end of the month for bills, such as rent, hydro, food, and transportation.”
Since she was a child, Melissa has also had to deal with health issues, which affected her mental health. “Growing up not knowing what was going on in my mind… It really hurt. I got bullied for it.”
“Seeing how my parents were struggling, and now it’s going on a generational cycle where I’m living pay check to pay check trying to basically get ahead, but every time it feels like I’m getting ahead, I’m actually taking two steps back. And with ODSP – pardon my language – every time you try to get ahead, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. “
Melissa also knows what it is like to be temporarily homeless. “What hurt the most is that I was even suicidal and I’m not going to tell into all the details, but I was suicidal to the point where I wanted to end my life.” Despite the experiences Melissa had to go through, she was able to access a community resource in Cambridge that helped her find housing. She moved around to a couple different temporary places, but eventually moved into the place that she is at now.
Years later, she is giving back to the community by helping with the meal team at Ray of Hope. She started volunteering with the meal team in 2018. She has also been making hampers for the marketplace at Ray of Hope. “I feel like giving back to the Ray of Hope because they gave me a reason to be a better contributor to society.” Volunteering “gave me a purpose to get out of bed and not feel sorry for myself.”
Melissa also writes poetry. She has 4-5 books published through Amazon. She talked about how writing helps with her mental health. “It’s a way to let out my anger or whatever is on my chest. It helps to let out the frustration that has been building up.”
“I heard the stigma for myself is that people on ODSP don’t want to get out there and work. They are all drug addicts or this and that. Sometimes we are just in these situations of no fault of our own. We lost our jobs. We had something traumatic happen to us that was no fault of our own. We are just trying to figure out the best way to cope with our demons and better ourselves. We have to deal with constant stigma that people are putting on us and it makes it harder for us to actually want get out there knowing that there are these stigmas.”
“Basically, a lot of people have the ‘It can never happen to me’ mentality and when it happens to them, they end up ‘eating crow’ for saying that. They put their foot in their mouth and realize ‘Oh, it can happen to me’.”
Melissa is a published author who has written many books and poetry. You can click here to view Melissa’s books on Amazon.
Below is one of the poems that she wrote a few years ago and has allowed us to share. It is titled “You See Me.”
YOU SEE ME You see me there on the streets. Down-trodden, in need of much needed care. You don’t know how I got there, nor do you care. As you see, I fought for your freedom in wars past, When I returned from the latest mission, My wife was gone, and so were my kids, as well as all the money. The house was sold, and all I had was the clothes on my back. Down the dwindling spiral of depression I sank. I am now alone, looking for help from strangers whose freedom I fought for You see me there at the checkout. Short on change, so I have to put lunch items meant for my kids, when in school, back. They cry as they watch me do it. I hear your sighs of dismay, not knowing how it got this way. You see, my husband left me for another woman. Now I’m struggling to make ends meet. Being a mother can be tough, even tougher when alone. I can’t even afford childcare so I can find a job. I go days without eating myself so my children can be fed. You see me glaring through the window of the coffee shop. Hoping I won’t be coming in looking like I haven’t showered in days. I know you’ve noticed that worn down apartment building down the street. I just so happen to live there. The landlord is cheap with the repairs, and came in one night to my apartment and raped me. I’m a runaway teen, I was physically and sexually abused by my older brother. No one believed me because my brother said I was lying when he was confronted. I feel dirty and ashamed on the inside for the things that were done to me. I’m considering abortion of the child that resulted from the rape. All I want is a coffee with the change I found to warm me, even if it’s temporary. I see you give me dirty looks and evil glares. Thinking I’m lazy and don’t want to work. Before you judge, please take time to hear my story, you may be surprised. No one chooses or deserves a life of poverty. The circumstances that led to the unwanted situations are as unique as the individual. Never think it can’t happen to you, because life can be unpredictable. We’re all people who, at one point or another, are in need of a hand up instead of a hand out.
“My uncle passed away of COVID last year… then my dad. This year… It’s just hard.” Darlene talked about how hard it has been for her to be separated from her mother and adult children during the last two years. “I just want to be able to put my arms around my family, and see them face-to-face and have a coffee or something.”
“It’s not easy. I cry every day and every night. My health is not that good. My husband’s health is not that good. I have two dogs at home to keep me going every day. I have two children at home to keep me going every day. Friends? It’s hard to make new friends because they will treat you wrong.”
“I’m taking up knitting to keep my mind at ease. But sometimes that don’t help. Talking to people? I mean who do you talk to? I don’t know anybody. I don’t know who to go to and who not to go to.”
“I’ve been here in Kitchener for five years. I was originally from Toronto. And then I moved to Brampton, and then from Mississauga to Scarborough. And now I’m here. It’s just rough living – emotionally and physically… it’s just hard.”
When asked why she moved around a lot, Darlene replied, “Lots of fires. Twice. Two apartments. Two houses. Two house fires because the maintenance would not fix our fridge. I’m now going through the same thing. Trying to get maintenance to be done. Our house is infested with bugs. And it’s like, how can someone live like that? You can’t. They think a family can live like that with infestation and everything. But they want their money and that’s it. ‘Just give me the rent money.’ And now they’re upping rent to $1,800. They’re trying to make it like a condominium… for a two bedroom apartment.”
“I’m just trying to find a place that fits my budget. I hate it there. The people there are rough. My 12 year old son was shot with a BB gun. The police are investigating, but it’s taking a while.”
“I’m trying to get on [subsidized housing] – can’t get on housing because of the wait list. I’m trying now to do my child tax and I can’t get that done. I haven’t gotten it for six months for my little child. He’s 12 years old. My baby. It’s crazy – this money matter. I only had enough to pay my rent. I didn’t have enough to say ‘Okay, here’s more money to do my taxes.”
“I’m 52 years of age. Married for over 20 years. Long time. I’m just not going to lose my family for anything. My family is the number one reason I am here.”
My name is William Tindale. I’m 57 years old. I’ve lived on the streets since I was age 14. Back when I was 14 years of age, my parents put me out on the streets because I would neither go to school nor go to work. So my parents found it fit to kick me out. When they kicked me out, I had to fend for myself on the streets. By fending for myself, what I mean is basically I had to live from day to day by selling myself. I ended up living with a male – gay fella. For me to stay there, I had to perform sexual acts for him. It basically meant that I was able to eat there and sleep somewhere that was “safe.”
When I decided not to be doing that anymore, I was 16 years of age. I found my first job. I ended up sleeping at a warehouse. It was not the greatest conditions, but it was a paying job – till I got fired for stealing. I was stealing food basically to keep myself from being hungry so I’d be able to work. In doing so, they let me go. I lived on the streets for five and a half years after that. I was living from shelter to shelter, from a garbage can to a back alley, and then in a stairwell.
Then I met up with a female. She was a drug addict. I got hooked on heroin and cocaine, which is not the best thing to be hooked on. But when you’ve living on the streets, what can you do? You drown your sorrows in drugs, and I so did.
Well by me doing that, I put myself in a much worse situation than I thought I would be in.
I was subject to being raped, which I was.
I was hospitalized.
I was stabbed three times and shot once.
I was hung.
By the luck of God, I was found by a lady in the alley. I was hanged. They hung me upside down by my feet. I lost consciousness. I woke up in St. Mike’s hospital, wondering where the hell I was.
Coming off of cocaine is not an easy thing to be doing when you’re in a hospital. I ended up getting arrested because I had drug paraphernalia on me. The nurses had found it. I ended up doing a little time in jail. I figured “Okay, I’m safe.” Well you’re not safe there either, believe it or not. You fend for yourself in jail too, which is the same as the outside world.
But back to when I was on the streets. When I was on the streets, it was a much tougher go. I stayed at Covenant House in Toronto. Then I stayed at a men’s shelter called the Seaton House. Then I stayed at the Salvation Army for men. By staying at all these shelters, I ended up catching diseases. I caught head lice. I caught scabies. Some things you can’t get rid of on the streets because there’s no help. The only help you have is if you walk into a shelter, they can offer you a pair of socks or a shower. I had to wait for meals. Whenever I could scrounge, I would find. I would go to a garbage can and look for a piece of bread or a chunk of hamburger. And I would eat it – raw or cooked. I became very ill living on the streets. I ended up being hospitalized for a month. I was malnutrition-ed. I was dehydrated. This was in the middle of winter and I had nowhere to go. So I ended up staying at a place called Allen Gardens. I ended up living on a picnic bench for a week. I covered up myself with newspaper and garbage bags. Sad as it may be, sad as it sounds.
At age 21, I ended up sleeping in an abandoned car, not realizing that somebody had owned it. But it was abandoned. There were no license plates on it. The tires were off. So I figured, “Okay, a great place to hide.” It was a nice place to stay warm under the snow and out of the cold. I fell asleep. It was a Friday night. I can remember it till the day I die. It was a Friday night when I fell asleep and I woke up in a wrecking yard in a crusher. I was inches away from dying. If I hadn’t had hollered loud enough, the man in the machine wouldn’t have heard me. He would have crushed me to death. That’s what drugs will do to you. It will put you right out. You don’t feel nothing and you don’t see nothing until it’s almost too late.
I’ve been near death three times. I’ve overdosed. I’ve had my fingers crushed by a crusher in the scrapyard. And I’ve tried to commit suicide because I didn’t figure that I had anybody that cared.
My mother was a drunk and my father worked all day. My father could only deal with so much. He couldn’t deal with my shit, nor could he deal with my mother’s. So he threw me out the damn door. My father was a very, very strict man. He believed in two things: You work for what you get and if you don’t work, you starve. My family turned around and told me I’d end up to be a nothing. A nobody. I was a nobody for many years. I turned to a lot of things that I didn’t want to do – robbing people, stealing from people, stealing from family, stealing from my sisters. Nobody trusted me. But my parents let me back in their house for two weeks. They felt that I deserved to be on the streets. What they didn’t realize was what I went through. I didn’t tell them I got raped. I didn’t tell them I had to perform sexual acts to stay alive. I stole? Of course – I had to survive. I used to steal clothing off of clothes lines. Or somebody would let me shovel their walk way and would let me in their house to drink a bit of milk or something to eat. I would look around and see what I could take because it was the only way I could survive.
When I turned 25 years of age, that’s when I smartened up. I got married. I had two children. And in that time frame of having children, we ended up bouncing from family shelter to family shelter. The government wasn’t giving us enough. There was no adequate housing. To subsidize a family, you need double income. Well you can’t have that if you have children below school age because they have to be tended to. So in that process, myself and my spouse at the time, ended up having bad hygiene.
Our social worker that we had for Ontario Work – we had to bring our children into each meeting we had to go to. And they found out that our hygiene wasn’t the best so they called the Children’s Aid on us. They took our children away from us. So in that process, [my wife] decided she was going to part her way with me. So I was left back out on the streets again. She went to her parents. I was back out on the streets. I begged and pleaded with my parents to let me back in. They turned around and said, “No. You deserve what you get.”
That’s just one part of William’s story. You can read his entire story and others at The Exposure Project, hosted on the Waterloo Region Community Legal Services website.
Evangelynn Chee is an intern at Waterloo Region Community Legal Services, a non-profit organization that provides legal assistance, public legal education, and community advocacy to low income residents of the Waterloo region. Her experience in the social work field involves supporting low-income and marginalized communities, specifically folks experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, and conflict with the law.
She obtained an Honors Bachelor of Social Work from Lakehead University and is currently pursuing a Master of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University. Outside of social work, Evangelynn loves pugs, cheese, and crime documentaries – in that order.
If you would like to share your story or if you would like to find out more about The Exposure Project, contact Evangelynn at [email protected]
You can also reach her through Instagram and Facebook @TheExposureProjectKW