Homeless in Nanaimo: Descent to loss of identity

By Spencer Sterritt
March 8, 2017 - 4:07pm Updated: March 9, 2017 - 4:23pm

Many homeless spend the night in a shelter, but a large portion of the community camp out at night. Homeless woman Amber Lee says she feels vulnerable at night. Marc Bruneke/Flickr

NANAIMO — There's no light at the end of the tunnel for Amber Lee, who lives on the streets of Nanaimo.

In May 2016, when she first found herself homeless after a long string of incidents including losing her children and a housing dispute with her mother-in-law, Lee said she still felt like herself.

Now, 10 months later, she barely recognizes the woman she sees reflected in store windows.

“You become homeless and you stay the same person you were. And then slowly it becomes...you have no choice. You start stealing from stores and people,” she said.

Born and raised in Nanaimo, Lee said she often runs into people from her past.

“Some people just pretend they don't see you and walk away. I prefer that than them asking me what happened. Before, I prided myself on how I looked. A month ago someone came up to me and asked if I needed a coat. You slowly start to look homeless, though you don't try to. It's discouraging.”

Growing up, she said she always had money, working since she was 11. As a teen and young adult she travelled the world, saw the sights and had a very different life. But when the rug was pulled out from under her, she didn't have support to stay off the streets.

“I don't know anyone who has 10 per cent put away for emergencies,” Lee said.

Now, she camps out at night when her belongings aren't stolen. The night before talking to NanaimoNewsNOW she said her tent and all her effects were stolen from her hiding spot in the bush. Very little of it was recovered.

Homeless on homeless theft is an issue she deals with daily.

“They're in a mode of desperation in their lives so much where they can't be friends. Some of them are addicted, a lot of them are mentally ill,” she said.

“You don't tell people where your camp is. You don't have a door to close so people come and steal your stuff and it seems like homeless people aren't allowed to be anywhere.”

According to Lee, you won't find her begging on the street. She said she can't bring herself to panhandle out of embarrassment.

Bringing herself out of homelessness is a vague goal, she said, because there's so few avenues to get out.

When told to get a job by others, Haug said it hurts because it's nearly impossible to get those opportunities.

“It's like okay, I'll go find somewhere with power, have a shower, find a phone where they can call me back and look presentable enough to hand out resumes when I can't even find something to eat. I'd love to, but it's not even in my spectrum of a day.

“I'm not lazy, it's just trying to eat and stay dry (and) keep your camp safe from people. That's every day. I go to bed hungry every night.”

Physical labour of any kind is nearly impossible for her, she said, due to the intense nerve damage in her fingers from surviving Nanaimo's harsh winter. “If anything touches my hands it hurts. They're always red.”

Since Lee has no fixed address, she receive $160 a month from welfare, which doesn't last long.

Though she said there's no light at the end of the tunnel from her, and she's just living day by day, Lee does dream of a better future.

Specifically, she said she wants to work helping prostitutes.

“Society's opinion of street girls needs to change. I've seen girls thrown out of trucks when it's moving, just horrible things. Big whip welts on girls' back because someone restrained her and whipped her.”

Until the time comes where Lee can either receive more from welfare, or finds an employer willing to hire someone who'd been homeless, she said she's taking it day by day.


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On Twitter: @spencer_sterrit

Homeless in Nanaimo: Living on the edge