It’s been a long time since Irene Liening has had a place to call home.
The 56-year-old has spent the last couple of years staying in homeless shelters, single-room occupancy hotels and inadequate housing.
Sometimes the shelters that she went to in Surrey were full, and she would find herself sitting in McDonald’s in the middle of the night, without a place to rest.
“I can’t describe it, you know—being so tired and not able to sleep anywhere, 4 or 5 in the morning, I was so tired and wandering around, and taking trains back into Vancouver to find a shelter and there was no room,” she said in an interview.
When she did find a place to sleep on the floor of a shelter, a divider separating the men from the women, she was surprised at how many female seniors were without homes.
Liening had become homeless in 2009 after developing health problems that prevented her from working. As she wandered the streets looking for shelter, she was also coping with an ankle injury.
“It’s been a long journey for me,” she said. “I’ve had a really rough time.”
In late December, Liening finally moved in to a home of her own. She was assigned a ninth-floor unit in a new supportive housing building on the corner of Broadway and Fraser, operated by the Vancouver Native Housing Society.
“I felt like a million pounds got off my shoulders when I moved in here,” she said.
Here, she has her own room and kitchen, and unlike a shelter, she doesn’t have to gather her belongings and leave by 7 a.m. each day.
“Makes me feel like a million dollars to come out of this building every day, to come home [and say] ‘this is my building, I live here’,” she said.
“Just to feel like you’re somebody. You know, I’m not homeless anymore.”
She’s one of almost 70 tenants who have moved in to the building since it opened in December.
The site, called Kwayatsut (a name chosen by Chief Ian Campbell of the Squamish Nation), is the newest of 14 supportive housing sites to be completed in Vancouver as part of a partnership between B.C. Housing and the City of Vancouver. It is expected to be fully tenanted by the end of March, with about 70 adults and 30 youth.
According to B.C. Housing, 12 of the 14 sites are now completed, with two still under construction or in development.
The new Fraser Street facility includes the rebuilt Broadway Youth Resource Centre, where youth can access food, counselling, computers, laundry facilities, housing supports and other services.
David Eddy, the executive director of the Vancouver Native Housing Society, said most of the tenants in the new building would have been homeless prior to moving in. He noted that youth are a major focus of the new site.
“A lot of the youth would have been couch surfing, so they wouldn’t be on the street, but they were really homeless,” Eddy said.
With at least two employees on site at all times, the building is the most highly staffed of Vancouver Native Housing’s facilities in the city. Staff can connect residents with other supports, and youth also have access to services at the adjoining resource centre.
Andrea Mears, the manager of support services for Pacific Community Resources, which runs the centre, said the site offers supports to youth between the ages of 16 and 24. Last year, the facility had 5,910 visits.
“A lot of the youth may have experienced homelessness, or they may be couch surfing, or maybe not living in the best accommodations, like a shared house or an SRO or something,” Mears said.
The 30 units for youth at the Broadway and Fraser building are in addition to two transitional housing sites for youth that the organization runs in Vancouver. Mears said the waiting list for those sites is a year and a half.
“There’s just such a need for affordable housing for young people in the city,” Mears said. “We would easily be able to fill more of these beds.”
“Once they’ve got a place to live, then they can go to school, they can find a job, but when they’re homeless, it’s really hard for them to go to school regularly and be employed, so just having a place to live then helps get some of that other stuff that they need to do to be able to live independently,” she added. “Without a home, how do you go to school?”
The 2014 Metro Vancouver homeless count found a total of 322 unaccompanied youth. A higher proportion of youth respondents were women compared to the total homeless population, and a significant proportion identified as aboriginal.
The 24-hour survey of homelessness in the region also indicated that seniors 55 years and older are an increasing portion of the total homeless population. According to the study, 371 homeless seniors were counted in the Metro Vancouver region, a 38 percent increase from 2011, and the number of homeless seniors over the age of 65 nearly tripled since 2008. Vancouver is due to conduct a local homeless count in March.
New Kwayatsut tenant Joseph Doucette noted that living on the streets takes a physical toll on the homeless.
“Because of course you can’t keep up with your diet, you can’t keep appointments because you need to survive every day, and you don’t have the time to go and do an appointment,” he said.
Before moving in to the building, Doucette was sleeping in carports, parks, and occasionally the homeless shelter on Yukon Street. He said many homeless people prefer to “sleep under the stars” than stay in a crowded shelter where there could be issues including bedbugs and noise.
The 63-year-old, who is a former member of the military and originally from the East Coast, said when he was living on the streets, he was always with a group of friends.
“It’s rare that I’d be by myself,” he said. “There was always three or four of us that always stayed together and contributed to each other and helped each other out.”
That has been the only adjustment to having his own unit in the new building on Fraser Street—being by himself, which he has found difficult.
When he first walked into his eighth-floor room, with a view of downtown, he thought to himself: “I don’t deserve this—it’s too good for me.”
“Because I’m so used to living in carports,” he recounted in an interview.
“I’m very, very thankful to have this. I’m still trying to adjust to it. Still can’t believe I’m actually here.”
For Liening, moving in to Kwayatsut has been like living “in a fairy tale”.
By sharing her experiences with homelessness, she hopes more people will know what it’s like to live on the street.
“I may be homeless, but I’m not a bad person,” she said. “I’m just somebody that has a need for safe housing, to have my own place.”
“I’ve owned homes before, I’ve had jobs, I’ve owned cars before,” she added.
“People are two paycheques away from being homeless, basically. A lot of people have got to remember that.”