Stevie’s Story

Image of the front of a red brick house, and the entrance door painted in beige.

National Indigenous History Month is observed in June each year, and June 21 is designated as National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. We sat down with one of Fife House’s staff members, Stevie R, a Case Manager with the Linkage to Care Program – which provides support services to individuals who are unhoused/experiencing houselessness – to learn more about their experiences as a Case Manager and as an Indigenous person.

Hi Stevie. Thank you for making time to meet with us. To begin, could you share with us something about yourself?

My name is Stevie, and I am Two-Spirited Indigenous individual from a small town called Prince Rupert in Northern British Columbia – which is also known as the City of Rainbows. Growing up, my sense of home extended across many places in British Columbia and also the Yukon, where I lived for 3 years and held many jobs. My life’s path led me on a journey through many cities across Canada. After moving from place to place for many years and dealing with the uncertainties it entails, I made the conscious decision to settle in one place. I also wanted to go back to school, but at the time, I was dealing with a lot of stuff.

I arrived in Toronto on a Greyhound bus. I did not have contacts in the city whom I could call upon so I had to stay at the shelter. Arriving in Toronto as a young person marked a significant turning point in my life. I have now lived in the city for about 15 years. When I share my story with people now, they often commend me for my courage. However, at the time, it didn’t feel that way. For me then, the moment you step into a shelter you’re in survival mode. I was too focused on finding a home, getting the necessities I need. It didn’t feel like courage at the time.

Today, as a Peer Case Manager for the Linkage to Care Program, I understand the difficulties faced by individuals without a support network. I rely on my own lived experiences to provide compassionate care to individuals who are navigating similar challenges. So the driving force behind my commitment to this work lies in my own personal and professional experiences, understanding of our community’s needs, empathy and compassion for clients, and my passion for the work.

Can you tell us more about what you do in your role?

At Linkage to Care, we support clients (who are homeless or living in precarious housing situations) with various needs, including housing, accompaniments to medical appointments, advocating for needs, and much more. While I can’t share specific details about my work due to confidentiality, I do my best and put in the time and effort to build relationships with our clients and community members who are experiencing homelessness. It takes time to build trust. But in so doing, I’ve been able to witness their incredible stories, including both hardships and remarkable successes. For example, we conduct outreach at the encampment in Allen Gardens twice a week and I have the privilege of meeting individuals who were recently evicted or are currently living outdoors and hearing their stories.

It’s incredible to witness how hard some have worked to help themselves and are able to find safe housing within just two or three months after losing their homes. However, homelessness is a multi-layered issue and it’s very tough sometimes when you hear about community members who are homeless who have been lost. It’s a harsh reality that exists for some of our community members here in Toronto. It affects me personally and I often ask myself what more I could do or have done to support them.

What are some of the needs or challenges that you’ve noticed among the community members that you work with in your role? And how have your own experiences shaped your approach as a Case Manager?

What it means to be homeless has certainly changed over time, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. The demand for shelter and housing continues to rise while affordable rent-geared income housing is increasingly harder to find. Many of the clients we work with are on long waiting lists for housing but there are just enough housing and resources.

Back when I was homeless, I was able to choose which shelter I wanted to stay at. But now, a person would have to call Central Intake and hope to find a bed, and one next to someone that you’re familiar with. With some clients I’m helping to advocate for now, they are having to travel to the outskirts for a shelter bed, away from the Downtown Core where their friends and support networks are, where they feel safe. This creates additional challenges and barriers for the community members/clients that the shelter system is meant to support. For instance, having to deal with the extra cost and time it takes to travel to and from the outskirts, while on limited income such as ODSP.

Moreover, there is a glaring lack of representation. As a Two-Spirited Indigenous Non-Binary individual, I often find myself as the sole representative at community tables in the city. Representation is crucial not only for me but also for our clients, particularly those from Indigenous populations who bear a disproportionate burden of HIV infections and incarceration. There needs to be more of that. It also means recognizing historical legacies, promoting equitable access to services and programming, and doing the necessary work to fulfill and actualize the responsibilities which organizations speak of in their land acknowledgments.

What strategies or initiatives do you think are needed to address homelessness and combat misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding individuals experiencing homelessness?

Trauma and isolation are undeniable struggles faced by many of our clients, and we try to meet their needs with understanding and compassion. That’s why I enjoy building genuine connections with each client, providing personal support, and creating a safe space for them to share their stories.

It is important to understand that the situations people face while living outdoors are complex – as are the circumstances that led them to that situation in the first place. So we need to look beyond face value and what we are seeing; it’s easy to look at encampments and the people that live there and make judgements based on misconceptions and stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness, mental health struggles, and addiction. It’s easy to ignore and dehumanize people who are homeless. But it’s important to take the time to learn and listen to their stories, their priorities and what they require to move themselves out of those situations towards a path of healing. There are many people who live in precarious housing situations and have difficulties making ends meet even though they’re working and juggling several jobs. Helping people who are homeless find a roof over their head – a safe place to stay – enables them the space and opportunity to tackle other issues they may be working through and to advocate for themselves.

There were times, especially at the beginning when I took on this job, that I feel that I didn’t have the capacity to assist or support others but I’ve since realized for myself that my experience, willingness to listen and have an open mind, compassion and empathy has helped me be a support person for others in meaningful ways. I recall a client who I’d been working with who was able to secure housing after several months of being homeless. Initially, she thought that I was just there afterwards to monitor her, but when I shared my personal experiences with her – and reassured her that I recognized the anxiety and fear that she may be feeling and that I was there to support her – she cried and opened up. It took several months but now she trusts me to assist and support her in getting the services she required.

Through my own experiences, I have also come to realize an important shift in perspective. I advocate for reimagining the concept of recovery, in my own unique journey and service delivery, as well as for others. We all struggle with something; some of us more than others. But rather than striving to return to a past state that no longer exists, I embrace the idea of “evolving.” This approach recognizes the remarkable growth and resilience individuals can achieve.

Thank you for your time and for sharing your invaluable insights, Stevie.

Photo of a bespectacled individual dressed in red seated in a garden with their hand crossed on their knees. Behind them are several tall buildings.

If you would like to support the valuable work that Stevie and dedicated staff like them are doing, you can make a difference by donating to Fife House. Your contribution will directly support programs and services that provide essential support – including access to food/meals and other wellness services – to individuals and families living with HIV, including those who are unhoused/experiencing houselessness, mental health and addiction challenges in Toronto.