For four months, I slept on buses, in stairwells, on park benches. Until an October night when my cheap tennis shoes and light spring jacket were overpowered by a cold downpour.
Angry and exhausted, I made my way to a place I had avoided for so long. Covenant House. The only shelter I knew, a haven I’d heard about in a Grade 10 civics class.
I pushed the intercom and entered a world I wasn’t at all ready to embrace.
New arrivals at shelters put their clothing in a dryer to kill any lice or bed bugs. At the intake, a social worker will want to know what led you there. My story wasn’t much different from others who had come before.
I grew up in the custody of the Children’s Aid Society. When I turned 17, my first boyfriend became violent and held me against my will at his apartment for two months.
After fleeing, I went back to my foster mother, who said I was no longer welcome because I was a risk to the other children. With no home, no guidance, no money, the streets were the only place I could turn.
After my intake, a staff member walked me through the shelter’s living room and explained rules and meal times. He took me to the girl’s floor, where a female social worker led me to my room at the end of a long hall that smelled like a hospital.
“You got lucky with no roommate tonight. Wake up call is at 6:45 in the morning, and you have to be off the floor by 7:30.”
She closed the metal door. I looked around the room. One bunk bed and two grey metal dressers with a locker on both. On the bed were a folded sheet, pillow, and quilt that smelled like a basement. I made my bed and sat there, scared, before drifting off to sleep.
I was awakened by a loud knock and yell, “Get up. Get ready to get off the floor.” This sentence was repeated every five minutes until the girl’s floor was empty.
I went to the dining hall where breakfast consisted of danishes and what looked like leftovers from last night’s dinner.
I took a stale danish and made my way to the living room, now filled with young men and women aged 16 to 25.
Soon, I was welcomed to my new life.
“You’re looking to make fast money, baby girl?” a young man asked.
He often lingered outside the shelter doors, looking for vulnerable girls. The staff needed co-operation from victims to have charges laid. But no one was brave enough to go against him and his gang.
Lucky for me, a social worker approached to discuss my next steps to get out of Covenant House.
“I plan on leaving next week,” I told her.
Three years and five shelters later proved me wrong.
A life that seemed impossible to escape ended when I finally got hired as a housekeeper at a popular hotel downtown in June 2013 and rented a basement apartment in Parkdale.
I had to cut myself off from every person attached to the streets to move forward. I didn’t tell anyone where I was going. I vanished.
The streets have a way of holding on to those who don’t have anyone to help pull them free. It loves the sad and lost. Your family becomes those who watch over you when shelters kick you out.
The year before I left the shelter system, a friend of mine was found in an alleyway dead from an overdose. The police didn’t bother to call her parents. I had to.
That was a turning point for me. Why wasn’t anybody there to report on this?
I saw a need that needed to be filled. I would go to journalism school. I would tell those stories. I would make a difference for those still on the streets, for those like the cold, wet, frightened desperate girl I was on that October night a lifetime ago.