Meal time at the Gateway of Hope homeless shelter is often filled with a buzz of conversation, forks scraping plates, and sometimes, a faint piano.
Aysha, a 27-year-old Salvation Army employee, frequently plays and sings for those at the shelter in Langley, or their sister location in Chilliwack.
A lover of music, it has only been in recent years that she has had the freedom to play.
“Growing up was difficult for me,” she said in a soft voice.
“My mom had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (a mental illness causing an inflated sense of importance). I guess from a young age, I didn’t know what I believed. Everything that I thought I knew was more of an extension of her. So that led me to have identity issues.”
Searching for ways to cope, Aysha turned to drinking and partying. At age 15, she started casually using cocaine. By 17, she was addicted to crystal meth.
She began a cycle of floating in and out of jail, and ceased all contact with her family. Not long after high school, Aysha became pregnant, and was forced to give up her son due to her lifestyle.
“(That) led me to a deep depression and to use more drugs,” she said.
“I don’t know if you know much about crystal meth, but it takes over your whole mind. So you become an actual shell of yourself.
“It’s like poison, essentially, invading your body. So I was in psychosis for a really long time where I didn’t really understand what was real and what wasn’t.
“I decided that life wasn’t worth living any longer and tried to commit suicide. And as I was laying there — I had tied a bag around my head — God spoke to me and reminded me that he was real and that he was a God of love. And that’s what I desperately needed.”
One week later, Aysha, who was 20 years old at the time, was arrested yet again, but remarkably, police let her go for no reason. The officers told her to turn her life around. Shortly after, she showed up on her parents’ doorstep.
“They didn’t know what to do with me, because they hadn’t seen me in a really long time,” Aysha said.
“And so they sent me here (the Gateway of Hope). I think that them dropping me off was a really hard thing for them, because my dad walked into a shelter and saw all of these — you know — scary people, in his mind. He didn’t have any sort of idea about addiction and what it looked like. But he kind of just left me here.”
Aysha stayed at the shelter for 30 days, and was transferred to a one-year recovery program with Teen Challenge.
“I think the Salvation Army is so great because people believe in you, they have hope,” Aysha said.
“And that’s something that I really learned from everything, is to hold out hope for people. Because if people gave up hope on me, then I wouldn’t be here.”
A NEW IDENTITY
After completing her recovery, Aysha had an opportunity to give back in a way she never thought possible.
At the age of 24, she moved to Africa for one year to work in an orphanage and addictions home through Teen Challenge in Swaziland.
“Life really changed quickly for me,” she said.
“Addiction looks different there. There’s a lot of really young, poor girls who have gone through some sort of traumatic experience. It might not necessarily be using any sort of drugs or alcohol, but they go to centres for help because that’s all that’s really available.
“I think at the root of it all is identity. When people don’t know their identity, they are more likely to act out — that’s one common thread, brokenness of any sort. It does have many different faces, but it has the same root.”
After fulfilling a year of service in Africa, Aysha returned to Canada and began working in recovery homes. In August 2015, she was hired by the Salvation Army in Langley, and in January, was transferred to the Brigadier Arthur Cartmell House in Chilliwack.
Living in Abbotsford now, Aysha has restored all family relationships, including one with her son, who was adopted by her cousin.
“I think that’s a huge thing for people when they come here (to the shelter), they have absolutely no one and nothing,” she said.
“Even when I got dropped off here by my parents, it felt like I had no one. So to see those relationships restored has been amazing.”
When looking back on her journey, Aysha says her addiction spurred from a desire for escape — something that many can fall victim to.
“For me, I feel that addiction can happen to anybody — life can happen to anyone. I think a lot of people are one paycheque away from being homeless.
“But I don’t regret anything that I have gone through in life, because I think that it gave me the ability to understand people better, the heart of people, and also gave me an ability to have more compassion and empathy for people, which I might not have had otherwise.
“And thankfully, because of the Salvation Army, it was a vehicle to point me in the direction that I needed in order to help me develop my character.”
‘WE’RE ALL THE SAME’
After working with those struggling with the same addictions she once had, Aysha says the most rewarding part is “treating people like people.”
“It gives me grace for people’s behaviours,” she said.
“A lot of people don’t even understand or realize how they are behaving. It’s not lowered expectations, but I guess in a sense it is. It’s just understanding that there’s more to it than what people are showing. When you’re in years of addictions, you’re in years and years of hurt behind that.
“It kind of makes me realize that we’re all the same. We all come from some sort of thing that we’ve had to work through, or go through, and there is hope for every single person. And it also makes me realize that it’s our responsibility as humans to look after one another.”
Aysha believes one of the largest misconceptions surrounding the homeless is a perception that it is easy for them to change, and that they are making a choice to use drugs.
“I think that people don’t understand the stories that people have gone through to get to that place,” Aysha said.
“There’s a lot of people that go through shelters that don’t have addiction issues, and something really traumatic in their life has happened, and they aren’t ready to face it yet. They get stigmatized or judged that way. We need to treat them as equals.”
Homelessness comes in many forms that go beyond the stereotypes of people sitting on street corners, says Jim Coggles, executive director of the Gateway of Hope.
“Everyone’s life is a unique personal story, and we really respect that,” he said.
“But the public looking at us often say, ‘Why don’t you just get a job?’
“For the vast majority (of homeless), it’s more than that. They’ve had jobs, they’ve had places to live, and they’ve lost them for a reason, because there’s stuff that they need to work on. And until someone can walk alongside and help them through that … the job and the place to live are just going to be cycles that they go through.”
Oftentimes, those who are labelled as “visually homeless” aren’t actually homeless at all, said Cameron Eggie, residential services manager at the Gateway of Hope.
“Visual homelessness is a trending topic, but so many of these individuals — even the ones with carts — they have homes, they have an address,” he said.
“They spend their day outside, they collect things. But a person driving by on their way to City Hall might see them as a homeless person in dire need.
“When the public reads that there’s a homeless problem, there’s no relationship — everyone with a cart is homeless. But some people get their cart from underneath the parkade, and go on their collecting spree for the day. They may have mental health issues, or a brain injury — they certainly may not be living in the best way.”
On the other side, there are also a number of people in Langley who are the invisible homeless, Coggles added.
There are many who live in camps, or couch surf, sleep in broken down cars or abandoned trailers. Others are migratory, passing through the community on their way to Vancouver, or are laid off workers from other parts of Canada — often day labourers — who are living below the poverty line.
“There’s a lot of different pieces and parts to it,” Coggles said.
“There’s a stigma attached … particularly when it’s someone you don’t know. We’ve gotten to know a number of the homeless people over the years, and gotten to know who they are, and see their incredible integrity and honesty.”
Coggles says a common misunderstanding is the degree of difficulty involved in transitioning someone from living on the streets in survival mode, to living in stability.
“For most people, it can be years of fighting away at it. And I call it a fight because it can be, for many folks, a real struggle. They’re dealing with habits and mindsets, post traumatic stress, a lot of different factors are contributing to people remaining in homelessness, notwithstanding substance abuse,” he said.
“We always say there are no disposable people, there’s never a situation that’s completely hopeless. Even when somebody seems to be struggling and is in their worst moments. There’s always hope they will pull through.
“So we have seen some people go through very difficult times and it’s hard to watch, and yet at the same time, we know that they can make it through.”