The Warmth of Sisterhood
* This piece is the winner of the Jerry Rogers Award in Writing.
It’s 8 p.m. and the door clicks shut behind Serena Milward. She’s surrendered to the streets now, searching for a safe spot to spend the night.
She has a sleeping bag. She has a tarp. And she has a tent, but no poles to pitch it with.
“If I didn't have my bags,” she says, “you wouldn't even know I'm homeless.”
One place that helps combat this in London, Ont. is My Sister’s Place: a community centre that provides support to 100-150 women daily who experience homelessness, poverty, trauma and mental illness. My Sister’s Place serves hot lunches and provides a multitude of services during the daytime inside a historic house on Dundas Street.
Vanessa Hubbert-Disbrowe is a Transitional Support Worker at My Sister’s Place. A painting of the house hangs on the wall behind her that looks as she describes as “either bursting at the seams or taking a sigh of relief.”
This is an astute metaphor for what happens inside its wooden doors. Hubbert-Disbrowe says she has noticed an increasing number of women at My Sister’s Place since she began working there about one year ago. However, she understands why. “There’s just not a lot of options for women.”
“It's heartbreaking when we close at 8 p.m. and we try to get people into a shelter and there's no shelter,” she says.
According to a study done by Western Health Sciences, homeless women acknowledge the crucial need for housing and sense of community.
The report also says that homeless women and girls are among the most vulnerable members of society, as they often face unimaginable trauma.
Milward spends most of her days at My Sister’s Place because it’s a safe space for her to go.
Milward, 42, has been on the streets since she was forced to leave her home in June 2018.
When she started using methamphetamine, the city put her four children ranging in ages from four to 15 years old into the system, she says. After this happened, Milward stopped paying her rent because she lost her “umph” for life.
She was later arrested and sent to jail where she stayed for almost three months. She got released the morning of Nov. 29, 2019.
Milward expressed her desire to go to jail because she felt it would be safer for her than sleeping on the streets. “At least I had someone watching over me,” she says. She could also stay locked away from an abusive relationship.
She describes most of the men on the streets as abusive and says she likes going to My Sister’s Place because “it’s nice to be in an environment without the men.”
On the streets, Milward said she felt like a prize. “Men chase certain women to capture them and keep them trapped in this vicious cycle.” She experiences sexism in shelters too, she says, and describes the experience of trying to get a bed as “frustrating.”
According to Homeless Hub statistics, the city of London has a total of 372 shelter beds for 2,670 people trying to access emergency shelter.
Milward recalls a time where she was fifth in line for a shelter with only five beds. “Four men got accepted and I got turned away for it. The four men got in and I, the female, flipped out. I said, ‘This is B.S.!’ The men deserve safety and the woman doesn’t? That’s completely backwards.”
Hubbert-Disbrowe agrees there is a lot less space for women in shelters, especially around the holidays. She says that My Sister’s Place, and shelters in London as a whole, get more people seeking services when it’s colder outside.
Last year, London’s emergency shelters hit full capacity around the holidays. Representatives from the shelters told the London Free Press that they had an “unsustainable demand.”
But one initiative that brings relief and holiday cheer to homeless women is The Shoebox Project.
Allison Tisdale, The Shoebox Project’s Local London Coordinator, says that it’s important to give back around the holidays because “if this time of year rolls around and you don’t have anything in the way of family or people thinking of you, I think it’s especially hard.”
Started by the Mulroney family, The Shoebox Project encourages people in the community to fill shoeboxes with items for homeless, impoverished, and marginalized women to try to raise their self-esteem and remind them that people are thinking of them this holiday season. Volunteers then distribute the shoeboxes to shelters around the city in time for Christmas.
The London branch gave away over 2500 shoeboxes last year, Tisdale says.
The Shoebox Project has been working with My Sister’s Place since they began five years ago.
“It’s really nice seeing them smile,” says Hubbert-Disbrowe. She says the holiday season can be really lonely for those who are homeless, especially if they have no family, and getting a shoebox is something these women look forward to all year.
“They may not have anything else given to them all wrapped up.”
“In a lot of cases, a lot of these women - certainly the ones at My Sister’s Place - never get a gift,” says Tisdale. “It’s been years since they got a gift or had someone thinking about them. So that’s a goal for us. Give them a little bit more confidence so they’re not forgotten.”
“Generally, we have so much and it’s really nice to share that. That’s what Christmas is about.”
Milward was an appreciative recipient of a shoebox last year filled with bars of soap, a Tim Horton’s gift card, socks, jewelry, and more.
“It said to me that I still matter and I'm a human being and that some of the sisters are looking out for me.”
Hubbert-Disbrowe says the community of women at My Sister’s Place empower each other by bonding over shared experiences.
Milward adds, “I feel like I’ve had a lot of barriers. But I'm just going to stay strong and hold through those barriers and stay connected to those positive people.”
Hubbert-Disbrowe wants the city of London to notice the work they do at My Sister’s Place and hopes that increased awareness will help them gain more government funding, since they heavily rely on the public for donations.
She acknowledges the city’s current housing blitz for the homeless but wonders what will happen when it’s over. “We still have all these women that need your help,” she says.
Milward has no faith in the system as it currently exists, saying “[Children’s Aid Society] failed me and they failed my kids.”
“I feel my life right now is like looking in through a window,’ she says. “I'm just watching life go by. People live their lives and my children live their life. But I'm not allowed to enter it. It's brutal.”
When she’s in her tent at night staring up at the stars, Milward dreams of going back to school to study technology.
“That's what I'm really looking forward to,” she says. “But I need to get the pieces in place, go through the steps and be able to stick to it and not fall into the crappy cycle again.”