May 28, 2015 - Joanna (2nd person I approached)
When I first spotted Joanna, I noticed that she had a crutch propped against the wall next to her. She was sitting in the sunshine, with her back leaning against a concrete wall. Just above her head was a large overhang of ivy, seeming to protect the top her head from the heat of the sun. She seemed comfortable, with her right leg outstretched in front of her.
I asked if she would chat with me, and explained what it was for, mentioning that I would want to take a photograph of her as well.
“Do I need to remove my sunglasses?” she asked. When I said I didn’t mind if she left them on, she smiled and said she’d chat with me.
We spent a few minutes talking about how people don’t chat much these days, particularly to people who are homeless or panhandling for money on the street.
“I always give something if I have it,” said Joanna.
“Even if it’s some small change, or a cigarette. If I don’t have anything to give them, I’ll be sure to at least say hello. Sometimes people just want to feel like a regular person. Everyone deserves that dignity.”
Joanna was born in Calgary, Alberta.
“I have two older sisters, and two younger brothers. I wasn’t planned or expected. My mother was told she couldn’t have any more children. Then when I was born, I wasn’t the son they wanted. Three years later they had my brother, and then another boy. One of each, for each of them,” said Joanna. I wasn’t sure I followed.
“A boy and girl for my father. And another boy and girl for my mother.” There was a distinct sadness about her when we spoke about childhood. It was buffered with indifference.
“I hated school. Just hated it. I was an outsider, and a loner. I was painfully shy, and I liked to read. I did well in school, I got good grades. I just hated it,” she told me.
“The same with high-school. I wasn’t popular, and didn’t fit in. I hated all of my school years. When I was sixteen, things were pretty bad at home. I left school, and left home. My parents didn’t really care. My father wanted me to continue with school because my two sisters had dropped out. I guess he wanted one of his daughters to graduate. But I couldn’t live at home and go to school. And I couldn’t live at home if I didn’t go to school. I stayed with a friend for a couple of months. Her mother was wonderful to me. Like a second mother. But after a couple of months, I left. I lived on the street for about eight months,” said Joanna.
“I actually wanted an education, I wanted to go to school and finish it, even though I hated it. About three months after dropping out in grade ten, I went back, but to a Catholic school. I had been in regular public school before. I had difficulty with ‘confession.’ I didn’t know what that meant. Confess my sins? How long did they have to listen?” she said, looking at her watch.
“I didn’t last there more than about three months. That’s when I went to live on the streets.”
Joanna spent about eight months living on the streets.
“A friend of mine, someone that I had known from school, beat me up. The girl who I had lived with before living on the street. It was all over some guy that I had introduced her to. I didn’t know that he was seeing someone else. She beat me pretty bad,” she said.
“But I forgave her. I loved her, she was my best friend. And I knew that she wasn’t really angry with me. I understood her. You can’t choose your family, but you do choose your friends. And they become your family. So I forgave her.”
“I went back to live with my parents for a while. Until I got a job as a telephone operator,” she said.
“I worked the switchboard. Emergency calls and 411 information.” She was living on her own, working and dating a guy.
“I got pregnant, and during my pregnancy, my boyfriend cheated on me. My parents and brothers had moved to Nanaimo (Vancouver Island, British Columbia - BC). One of my sisters had a child and I was helping her, looking after my niece. My sister pleaded with me to go to Nanaimo with her. She was living with our grandparents at the time, but she missed our Mom and Dad. So I went with her to Nanaimo,” said Joanna.
“My plan was to get my sister settled in with our parents in Nanaimo, and then I was going back to Calgary. There were more jobs and better chances there for work. My mother wouldn’t let my sister stay. She told me that my sister was moving in with me, back in Calgary, and that was that. We didn’t have any say in the matter. I think my mother wanted my sister to spy on me, or at least felt she would,” she told me.
"My parents never really liked me, they made that very clear."
Two months after giving birth to her daughter, Joanna moved to Nanaimo.
“I had considered putting my daughter up for adoption, thinking that would be the best thing for her. But that didn’t happen. I wanted my daughter to grow up knowing who her grandparents were. That’s why we went there, to Nanaimo” she said.
“I got a job working in the bush. In a forestry camp. I was a faller and a tree chaser. I was supposed to learn to become a choker, but I was nursing my daughter and the work wasn’t really that good. I was on a government subsidy, so they were basically getting free labour, and didn’t really want to train me,” said Joanna.
In time she met and married a man and moved to the interior of BC.
“We had a little farm there, and had some animals, even a pot-bellied pig for my daughter. I was married for about seven years before getting a divorce,” she said.
Joanna has worked in a few different industries over the years.
“I even went to school to become a secretary. But I’m not really a secretary type of person. I don’t want to be indoors all day. I finished the course though, it was about four months long. And I did some training to become a cook as well,” she said.
Her daughter is an adult now.
"She has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. It’s not always great, but I’m so happy to have her. I’m a quiet person, and she isn’t. The mornings are the best, when I can get up early and soak in the bath before she wakes up,” said Joanna.
“She was staying with me in Nanaimo. She had to have some surgery, so I came over to Vancouver with her. It took longer than we anticipated. We were staying in a hotel, but I’ve run out of money now. Social Services have made arrangements for us to stay in a women’s transition house,” she said, quietly.
Joanna’s social worker had been putting her rent payments directly into her bank account, to cover her rent in Nanaimo. With Joanna being over here on the mainland, the file was to be moved here temporarily.
“My landlord wasn’t getting any rent and hadn’t seen me for weeks. Of course, because I’m over here. I don’t have the kind of relationship with my landlord that I check in with him. He reported me missing to the police. He went into our place, packed everything up, and moved us out. I don’t even know where our belongings are now. All we have are the things we brought with us in a backpack,” said Joanna. And yet, she still smiled.
“What are you gonna do? I don’t know what will happen, but what can you do?”
In conversation, I found out that Joanna has a bad knee and wears a brace on her leg to restrict movement, and add support.
“I can still get around okay, but that’s why I’ve got the crutch here.” I thanked Joanna for sharing her story with me.
I asked if I could take her picture.
“Do I have to take my sunglasses off?” she asked, as if to confirm it was still alright to leave them on. I told her that was fine. I asked if I could move her backpack so it wasn’t in the photo.
“I’m sorry,” said Joanna.
“I’m drinking a beer.” It was behind her backpack. I told her there was no reason to apologize.
“I just needed to get out of the place we’re staying at and spend some time on my own, quietly.” Joanna told me it was the first beer she had drank since her birthday, last October. I said I thought she deserved it, especially a nice cold one on a warm day, sitting in the sunshine.
I took her photo, and thanked her for her time and for chatting with me.
“Thank you for asking me to talk,” she said. I wondered if, for Joanna, it felt better to talk about her current situation.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I’ve never talked about it before.” #notastranger