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Shelter-hopping With My Son

“In Our Own Voices,” Week IV

by Pearly MayDTES Power of Women Group

Pearly May. Photo by Murray Bush // Flux Photo
Pearly May. Photo by Murray Bush // Flux Photo

Also posted by dawn:

When my son Ulrich was born, his father Patrick and I were renting a basement suite in Patrick’s father’s house. The birth of my son did not change Patrick. Patrick kept partying in the DTES while I was on E. I. and maternity leave, and our finances ended up supporting his alcohol and drug habits.  Patrick would sometimes bring other women home and would simply say that they needed somewhere to sleep. I felt like I was looking after two kids, and so eventually Ulrich and I moved out of there and into a place with one of my friends. 

I started to settle in the two bedroom suite, and was able to finish off my educational upgrading while my son was in daycare at the Collingwood Neighborhood House.  Our housing was stable for about a year, until the rental lease expired.  My roommate moved back home to our reserve community and I had nowhere to go.  I was able to “squat” in the house for a couple of months before I was asked to leave the property. 

I was now homeless, with my son Ulrich.

A worker at the Collingwood Neighborhood House found us a space at the Powell Street Shelter.  I imagined that the shelter would be a big warehouse with rows of cots, but I was relieved to discover that we would have our own room. I met other women with children and tried to get to know them so my son and I would not feel so alone.  On any given day in Vancouver, there are approximately 40 families with children that are homeless, and women are the invisible homeless, over-represented in shelters and transitional housing.  

The shelter was quite noisy, there was little privacy because the bedroom doors would not lock, and I had personal items stolen from our room. I also knew I was only allowed to stay for one month at the shelter, so I began actively applying for subsidized low-income housing through BC housing, Vancouver Native Housing, Lu’ma Housing, and Co-op Housing. 

My son and I started exploring the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood that we had found ourselves in. On a warm August day, we checked out the Powell Street Festival, a Japanese Festival, at Oppenheimer Park. It was a wonderful festival with music, martial arts, and food. We managed to sit my son on a sumo wrestler, but he wasn’t too impressed! 

We also wandered the streets of the DTES. Initially the drug dealers scared me, but most people on the street were homeless. Thirty percent of the homeless in the DTES are Aboriginal people.  Ulrich and I hung out at the Carnegie Community Centre, where Patrick’s brother Uncle John watched Ulrich while I did my homework.  Some of staff at the Carnegie were quite friendly and would let Ulrich and I sneak some naps on the yoga mats in the gym. 

I quizzed Uncle John about Patrick’s whereabouts.  I found out that Patrick was also now in the Downtown Eastside and one day I summoned up the courage to knock on Patrick’s single-room occupancy door.  He answered and let Ulrich and I in.  We talked and hugged, and Ulrich and him starting spending more time together.   

My month at the Powell Street Shelter was nearing an end and I had not heard back on any of my housing applications. A counsellor made some calls to find me a new shelter. When the counsellor handed me the phone to speak with the shelter in-take worker, the shelter intake worker asked me if I was fleeing an abusive relationship.  The counsellor, sitting next to me, could hear the question and nodded to indicate that I should say ‘yes’.  Though I was uncomfortable about lying, I followed her direction and said ‘yes’.  The intake worker then said they had a room for us.  This shelter was located in South Vancouver.

Eventually my time at that shelter also ran out and I was back at the Powell Street Shelter for yet another month. I was so determined to get housing. I consistently phoned Vancouver Native Housing and other housing agencies looking for a space in social housing. I was so desperate that I even checked out single room occupancies, which are completely unsuitable for children. When I would call private rentals that were advertising in the newspaper, they would ask me if I was Aboriginal. When I answered ‘Yes, I am Aboriginal’, they would refuse to consider me as a tenant. One landlord told me that their last tenant was Native and partied too much and so he would not rent to me, which is a clear case of discrimination and stereotyping. I was also walking around in the rain, without a jacket, frantically looking for Patrick that I was diagnosed with pneumonia. 

That month was hell and I shed so many tears. I was losing hope in finding a place.  Being without housing and having my son and I go from shelter to shelter was creating really high levels of stress and anxiety for me. My school suffered and I felt like an inadequate mother who could not even provide a home for my son.

Just before the end of the month, I received a call from Lu'ma Native Housing who had a two bedroom apartment for us in the Commercial Drive area. Just in the nick of time! 

My son and I finally have housing and are happy and healthy. Those several months were the equivalent of a life-time, but it was a journey and a stepping stone for where I am today.

Pearly May is from the Witsuwit’en Territory. She is a single parent of one child and is an activist, artist, and volunteer in the Downtown Eastside. She is active through the Carnegie Community Centre, Vancouver Moving Theatre, and DTES Power of Women Group. She wants to give back to the Downtown Eastside community.

This story is part of the Downtown Eastside Power of Women “In Our Own Voices” writing project. For more information and to read more stories, please visit

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