Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was facing what so many people are facing now: the fear and stress of sliding into poverty and homelessness due to circumstances out of my control. The social protections that most New Brunswickers believe that they can rely on are not effective. Realistically, it’s nearly impossible to even access the services described on the Department of Social Development website. What can be accessed is woefully inadequate. Our housing systems are failing our citizens. Quality of housing and quality of life matter.
I went to Fredericton to access a safe shelter in May 2019. There are no safe women’s shelters in Saint John unless you are specifically fleeing domestic abuse. There were a few nights I ended up walking or carving out a hole in a snowbank for the night because hiding was safer and more self-respecting than other alternatives. The social support system is set up for the benefit of those recovering from addiction or experiencing anxiety and depression but not enough consideration is given to trauma as the underlying cause of these symptoms. The other individuals I met also had horrifying trauma stories.
There are no adequate public programs for long-term treatment of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in New Brunswick.This failure to accommodate is also inherent in the shelter and housing systems. There are five different types of PTSD and they each require specific treatment as different disorders. PTSD is a disability with real, physical injury to a person’s brain. We all know if something affects your brain, it affects the whole of the person.
It is impossible to manage PTSD with little to no treatment. Those of us with severe trauma can’t fold our experience to fit into a purview or budget. We need a place of safety from which we can grow. I slowly became unemployable and slid into poverty over 14 years. This is how I ended up homeless at the age of 40. I was sick, alone, and desperate. I was paying $500 per month in rent out of an assistance cheque of $535 until that was no longer sustainable.
This kind of injury is the reality for many of the women who are in situations of domestic violence, addiction, working in the sex industry or incarcerated for crimes. People like me are often abandoned by friends, family, and the system.
I was called back to Saint John to accept a housing placement in December 2019 after nearly two years on the wait list. At best, this experience makes me miss the freedom and autonomy of being homeless. At worst, I am exploited, silenced, and victimized through desperation. The first landlord I met was verbally abusive, classist, and ableist. There are parallels to the experiences of women who stay in abusive relationships or are trafficked into sex work – the difference being that I am continually mistreated by the system that is supposed to be helping me.
When you reject three offers you lose your priority on the waiting list. Having rejected the first offer, I felt pressured into renting in a high crime neighbourhood. There was a gun and drug seizure less than a block from my house just months after moving in. Through cheap security cameras I captured a video of gunfire just up the street by the end of the year.
I am constantly harassed by one of my neighbours who has made inappropriate cat-calls and advances. He was lending his apartment for sex work prior to the pandemic. I’ve had men try to force their way into my unit mistaking the address. The response from my case manager at NB Housing was: “You can’t have a transfer because you don’t like your neighbour.” I can’t afford to move. I don’t believe another placement will be better. It will be a different building controlled by the same system. I only want to be safe in my home.
I was told that the previous tenants were evicted for hard drugs. When I moved in, my unit was left uncleaned. Blood, urine and feces were contaminating everything. I had to call the Department of Health to urge the landlords to clean it. For the first six months people continued to try and come through my bedroom window to buy/use drugs. Last month someone rang my bell and pounded on my door at 1:30 am. Confronting him alone, I was terrified. There have been two attempted break-ins which damaged my door. The landlords won’t replace it. The police told me to move.
I have documented a continuing problem with mold. I’ve bought a small dehumidifier, moisture traps, and mold and mildew sprays out of pocket. My HVAC duct system was never cleaned despite reporting a strong smell of mold the first day. It doesn’t have a dehumidifier unit. Water eventually poured out of my bathroom ceiling fan. Maintenance was sent out about the leak, but he didn’t even take out the fan to trace the source of the water. He came to my door later with a plunger and said my upstairs neighbour had a clog. This was after months of complaining about mold. I still don’t know the source of the leak or if it will happen again.
Housing Alternatives were supposed to ensure the success of my placement, but have decided for themselves that their work is done. I called the Residential Tenancies Tribunal about the mounting issues and violation of the lease. They told me that people in low-income housing are not protected by the Residential Tenancies Act. The New Brunswick Coalition for Tenants Rights has confirmed this is the law. Yet again, we are left with no protection from the system.
My experience of victimization in the search for secure housing in New Brunswick is one example of “sanctuary trauma.” Dr. Sandra Bloom and Dr. Steven Silver coined the term to describe the harm that “occurs when an individual who suffers a severe stressor next encounters what was expected to be a supportive and protective environment but discovers only more trauma.” I deserve to find safety and comfort in my home; a space for me to heal. I got crime, harassment, and filth instead.
Another tragedy of sanctuary trauma is that people who are victims often have nowhere else to turn. The government provides only basic support. The myth is that somehow it is my fault that I’ve ended up in this circumstance. It is never the victim’s fault.
Imagine the backlash that would happen if NB Housing placed a wheelchair user in a building with only stairs and told them they had to accept that “no place is perfect. You’re not going to get your way. You’ll have to adapt.” Or if they denied a diabetic the right to take insulin because recovering addicts lived in the building who might be triggered by seeing syringes explaining “other people don’t like it.” This is some of the discrimination that people struggling with PTSD face. Like any other chronic condition, our wellness has needs which must be accommodated.
As so many of you are now learning: the system is deeply flawed. It protects those who already have privilege. You can be a model citizen but be left with no protection nor solutions in times of need. We all have the right to expect adequate and safe housing according to the UN. It is the least we deserve as human beings. Let’s ask our legislators to bring humane consideration into our province’s recovery plan. Trauma informed approaches must be integrated into every governmental department. We have earned being treated with dignity and respect after surviving the pandemic. Some of us are already survivors of prior circumstances. When we ask for sanctuary, after doing all we had to do to survive, let’s be sure that is what we will get.
Clare Mudge is a violent crime survivor and advocate for people with PTSD.