How a small faith-based shelter helped me escape homelessness

This First Person column is the experience of Lisa Wiebe, a rural Manitoba mother who took photos to document her journey into homelessness. This is Part 3 in her First Person series about her experience. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

It’s been close to four years since I found myself on the streets of Steinbach, without an income or a home for my son and me.

Without any options left at the time, my son stayed in Steinbach with friends, while I made my way to Winnipeg. I was told I would have better access to shelters there.

I didn’t.

Months later, I returned to Steinbach, emotionally broken, traumatized by assaults and, as it turned out, physically, violently ill.

Not even 24 hours after arriving back, I began vomiting blood before collapsing on a bathroom floor. 

I was rushed by ambulance to the hospital. Turns out, when you tell them you are homeless and that you just got back from Winnipeg, they automatically believe you are an addict. I felt like I was being treated as if I deserved what was happening to me.

The first bath I had was like a warm soak in heaven itself.– Lisa Wiebe

While the nurse inserted my IV, she asked if I had learned my lesson.

I never did get an official diagnosis of what was wrong. They released me less than a day later, without a home to go to, right back onto the streets.

It was Steinbach Community Outreach that helped feed me and keep a roof over my head for the remaining three weeks of my homeless journey. While their shelter was already full and I never did get to see it for myself, they paid for a motel room for me for each night that I needed their emergency services.

Close up of a grey concrete sidewalk and curb, with a small heart-shaped leaf lying on the sidewalk.
Lisa Wiebe took photos of her life on the streets of Steinbach and Winnipeg. (Lisa Wiebe)

The first time I entered that motel room — after wandering the streets and couch-hopping for so long — I dropped my load and fell to the floor sobbing. 

Every muscle in my body ached. Every joint cracked or was seizing up and my nerves were going haywire. I lay there for an hour, sobbing uncontrollably, my mental anguish manifested into the physical realm in a cascade of tears, heaving sobs, and moans of utter despair and elation intertwined. 

The first bath I had was like a warm soak in heaven itself. I spent the evening writing and watching television before snuggling into a cloud of warmth and drifting into a dead sleep that lasted 11 hours.

I had to pack my bags, check out and head back onto the streets every morning, but knowing I could access shelter at the end of the day made the struggle so much easier. 

A woman with blond hair and sunglasses stares into the camera, with a slight smile on her face.
Lisa Wiebe says Steinbach Community Outreach supported her while she tried to find a home: ‘Knowing I could access shelter at the end of the day made the struggle so much easier.’ (Lisa Wiebe)

I finally found myself a little basement suite in the smaller community of Blumenort, although I’ve since moved out of that area, due to a lack of affordable housing there. 

My son is now a full-grown, responsible young man with a good job, an amazing girlfriend and a brighter future ahead of him than I ever could have thought possible. I am so proud of how far he’s come and even prouder to be his mother.

I have an amazing home in the extremely hospitable and welcoming community of Crystal City, far from the place that caused me so much pain and trauma.

This doesn’t mean I don’t still suffer from my homelessness though. 

It has been four years since my homeless nightmare truly began, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not haunted by the memories. 

For the first year after, I had the worst physical and mental health issues I have ever had. I was diagnosed with nerve damage in my neck and spine, several tom muscles across my back, shoulders and torso, arthritis in my joints, malnutrition and pelvic congestion syndrome. I’ve also been diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. 

We don’t put faces to homelessness.– Lisa Wiebe

To this day, I cannot stay still for long periods of time, nor can I carry a bag on my shoulder or back without pain, or stand for longer than 10 minutes. I live in an almost constant state of fear and hypervigilance and I am in constant pain. I am on temporary disability and still battle the system to prove I actually need it.

The suffering, pain and trauma that a person goes through during and after homelessness is beyond the capability of any word to describe accurately.

I still struggle to shake the basic survival mentality I developed while homeless. I struggle with basic things like grocery shopping and remembering to pay bills.

Of course, my story is far more detailed and complex than this very condensed version that you see before you.

Homelessness doesn’t just affect those who make bad choices, or those who have grown up in poverty or low-income households. The truth is, with the system the way it is, any one of us could face homelessness in our lifetime, and more people than we realize are homeless right now. The system we have is underfunded and overworked, and has way too many holes and cracks to fall through and get lost.

We rely far too much on faith-based and not-for-profit organizations to pick up the slack where the system falls apart.

We end up demonizing the homeless to quell the moral and societal guilt we all feel. We don’t put faces to homelessness.

Here’s hoping I can help bring an identity to the homeless — and an awareness that they are still human beings who need proper supports and resources.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

Support is also available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted.

You can access crisis lines and local support services through this government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911. 

This column is part of  CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.