The following is part of a series of stories sponsored by the Revelstoke Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use Collaborative. In this series individuals from Vernon and Revelstoke share their stories in an effort to open a community-wide conversation and reduce the stigma associated with substance use. Read the first story in the series here.
In light of the current global COVID-19 pandemic, marginalized populations, including those experiencing homelessness, are at an increased risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. In a post on its website, BC Housing says homeless and transitional housing communities “have higher rates of health concerns and may be at greater risk if exposed to the virus.” Having housing is linked to decreased harm not only from COVID-19, but also mental health and substance use issues, personal safety and overall well being.
Page and Rebecca’s story begins like many other modern day romances. Rebecca was scrolling through social media trying to reconnect with an old friend when she came across Page’s profile.
“As I was typing in my friend’s name her [Page’s] profile popped up. I thought she was cute so I sent her a message. I said, ‘I know this sounds kind of creepy,’ but she ended up replying so I was pretty lucky,” said Rebecca.
However, it hasn’t been all fairy-tale romance for the couple, who just celebrated their three-year anniversary. The two women first met while they were living in the Lower Mainland. Both women worked and they had a place to live. Somewhere along the way though, the two ended up homeless. The pair, who both struggle with substance use, began using drugs. Needing an escape, the two hopped on a bus with no particular destination in mind, which is how they wound up in Vernon.
It’s more than an understatement to say being homeless isn’t easy, but Page and Rebecca’s experience came with an additional hardship as they tell me they are the only lesbian couple they are aware of who were living on the streets of Vernon.
“I’m sure there are other lesbians, but none of them are openly together. So if you go downtown and you hear people talk about the [homeless] lesbians, that’s us. You just know that’s who they are talking about,” said Rebecca.
“It was really hard on the street being lesbian. There’s a lot of sexual harassment and abuse. It made me use [drugs] more. If my girlfriend wasn’t beside me at all times I was a target. [Other homeless] people would be, ‘Oh, you’re alone let’s get you. You don’t know what it’s like to be with a guy,” said Page.
No fans of the shelter system, the couple spend two years living homeless in Vernon before connecting with supports and finally finding a place they can call home. The couple now live in My Place, a supportive housing program located within walking distance to the majority of the community’s social services.
Page was only 12 years old when she started using drugs. Placed in foster care with an aunt she says was abusive to her, Page would escape by walking to a nearby bus stop where she says she started hanging around an older crowd of people she describes as “not so nice.” Page’s sister started dating a guy involved in a gang. At some point Page and her sister started helping the boyfriend out in order to get free drugs.
“I used drugs to escape, to feel like I belonged,” said Page, who started out using cocaine before switching to crystal methamphetamine because it is much cheaper.
That need for escape and belonging turned into a need for safety while living on the streets, said Page, because she needed to stay awake in order to protect both herself and Rebecca.
“Out in Vernon there’s a lot of hatred. There was a lot of people attacking us at our camps,” said Page.
Page said her substance use has stayed the same since moving into My Place, which she says allows residents to consume drugs.
“I think a lot of people here use to the point where they get sick of using so much,” said Page, who admits she also struggles with mental health issues. “I can’t see the future right now. I’m going with the flow, but I’m getting sick of the same routine over and over again.”
Like Page, Rebecca grew up in the foster care system. She spent time in and out of the system before being permanently placed in foster care at age seven. At 17, Rebecca moved out, thinking she had the ability to live on her own.
“I thought I was strong enough, but that led to partying,” said Rebecca, who grew up in Vernon.
At 18, diagnosed with mental health issues and told she had an eye disease that would eventually leave her blind, she began using fentanyl and crystal meth as a way to cope. Though she was clean when she first met Page, the couple’s spiral into homelessness led to Rebecca starting to use again.
“Being homeless had a big impact on our relationship. A couple months into being homeless we started using drugs. When we use drugs we argue a lot more,” said Rebecca.
In order to keep Rebecca safe while she was under the influence of fentanyl, Page would use crystal meth to stay awake.
“Fent is a downer, so I’m always nodding out. [Page] felt if I nodded out at an unsafe time or place she could wake me up if need be. She doesn’t use downers, just uppers.”
These days, Rebecca says she finds she isn’t as dependent on drugs. She’s now on a methadone program and wants to eventually be off of drugs completely. It’s a far cry from the first time she got clean by going cold turkey during a stint in jail. Only 19 years old at the time, Rebecca says she had been homeless for eight months prior to her arrest. She went to jail because she was in possession of drug paraphernalia — police found a dirty needle on her.
“It’s super easy to get cleans [needles] here in Vernon. It’s just disposing of them once they’ve become dirty is the issue,” she said.
Speaking up to reduce stigma
Since moving into My Place, Page and Rebecca spend a lot of time together in their apartment, shutting themselves out from the rest of the world. Yet, even in their self-imposed isolation the women see the need to speak out about their experience with substance use as a way to help reduce stigmatization surrounding addiction. Page shares that while it’s sometimes good to be hidden, it’s not necessarily a good thing because it can lead to people who use substances dying from an overdose.
“You have to have someone that [sic] says, ‘Hey, it’s OK to come out where you are and share your stories,’” said Page.
Rebecca echoes that sentiment, saying it only takes one person to step forward and share their story.
“It’s about going out and finding that one person who’s in drug addiction and wants to tell their story, because as soon as you find one many more will follow. It’s just finding someone to share,” she said. “Some people say it can be self-degrading to share your story because not everyone is as comfortable in their addiction. It’s almost like coming out of the closet.”
In March 2020, the City of Revelstoke received funding to begin work on The Revelstoke Community Wellness and Harm Reduction Project. The project, which is currently on hold due to the COVID-19 crisis, will build on the work done by the CMYHSU and the Opioid Dialogue Project. The Community Wellness and Harm Reduction Project will focus on harm reduction and inclusion of people with lived and living experience. You can read more about the project here.
For information on drug and alcohol supports in Revelstoke visit https://www.revelstokelife.ca/cat/alcohol-drug/.