Kelly Lord is regaining her footing at the Sandy Merriman Women’s Shelter after mental illness left her isolated and homeless. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Mental Health: Stigma leads to a life on the streets

People with severe mental illness disproportionately impacted by homelessness

This is part three of a special series on Mental Health in Greater Victoria. Find the entire series online at vicnews.com/tag/mental-health-in-greater-victoria. You can also find Black Press Media’s Mental Health Resource Guide online at vicnews.com/e-editions.

Kelly Lord’s voice quivers as she speaks in her councillor’s office at the Cool Aid Society Community Health Centre. Her words are thick with emotion, but her message is clear.

“It could happen to anyone.”

Lord lives at Sandy Merriman House – a Victoria Women’s Shelter. She is one of many who end up homeless after an episode of mental illness.

“At first I was almost just embarrassed. How did I get here?” she asked. “I had a great foundation in my life. I had a great family, parents, work, child – everything like that.”

It all changed after her husband died, and not long after, both her parents were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Lord left her Ontario home to be with her daughter and granddaughter on Vancouver Island, where she worked as a cleaner at Victoria General Hospital.

READ ALSO: One in two homeless people have suffered a traumatic brain injury: UBC study

But then her mother died, and shortly afterwards, Lord suffered a debilitating back injury, preventing her from working. She retreated into a state of hopelessness as her family crumbled around her. Eventually, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with chronic depression and panic disorder. But by the time she was discharged, Lord had nowhere to go.

For the first time in her life, she was homeless.

Between 25 and 50 per cent of Canada’s homeless population suffers from a mental illness, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, and the Canadian Mental Health Association stated people with serious mental illness are disproportionately affected by homelessness. The association noted consequences and length of time spent living on the street for those with mental illness “tend to be more severe.”

But Lord said even more work is needed to reduce stigma.

“It was hard for me to ask for help,” she said. “I just had a good job – I’ve always worked – and now I’m here. And it messes with your head. You stop in your tracks and go ‘what the hell did I do?’”

For Lord, it was the Cool Aid Society – a local non-profit resource centre and affordable housing provider – that stood between her struggles and a life on the street.

“I’m so thankful for that,” Kelly said through tears. “It would have been so easy to slide in another direction. I can talk about more things now and not feel embarrassed about it. And I was more willing to reach out for the help.”

Now, Lord is trying to look forward. She sees people struggling with a renewed compassion – an understanding that homelessness is sometimes only one missed paycheque, one back injury or one episode of mental illness away.

“There are so many reasons someone could be on the street,” she said. “Society needs to be a little bit kinder.”

Greater Victoria organizations including Our Place and Cool Aid are facing the brunt of what Grant McKenzie, Our Place Society’s director of communications, called “the beginning of a pandemic.”

READ ALSO: One third of Victoria’s homeless population identifies as Indigenous

“I really think the mental health crisis we’re going through right now is worse than it’s ever been,” he said. “We’re seeing people who have such severe mental illness that I’m kind of staggered that this is where they’ve ended up – at a not-for-profit homeless shelter.”

Grant McKenzie, communications director for Victoria’s Our Place Society, says the vast majority of people who come through the organization’s doors have mental health or addictions issues. In his opinion, the country’s mental health crisis is “the beginning of a pandemic.” (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

It’s extremely challenging, McKenzie added, with a lot of people they see requiring 24-hour care – something they’re not able to do. “In essence, we’re trying to stick band-aids on people.”

In some cases, those with severe mental health issues aren’t being hospitalized until their illness becomes a criminal issue. In fact, after a violent incident, Our Place Society staff often encourage charges be laid so that a person in need of help can get access to full psychiatric care.

McKenzie pointed to Gordon Hawkins, an Our Place Society volunteer who spent more than a year living on the street.

Hawkins lives in a world that will always be a little bit different. He processes grief, joy and beauty in stream of consciousness-style poetry. He offers acupressure to Our Place clients and speaks in a steady, thoughtful rhythm.

But there was a time Hawkins, living on the street, would lose consciousness, exhausted from processing his external environment. Unbeknownst to him, this was a symptom of schizophrenic psychosis – of sensory overload and delusions of grandeur.

“Everyone in the park is wanting my immediate attention and so are their relatives and the birds and the worms and everything else,” he explained. “And it’s not that those things don’t exist for normal people, but normal people have the ability to tune it out.”

READ ALSO: VicPD budget request sparks debate on role of police in mental health, addiction calls

Hawkins had been tree-planting in B.C. when he decided to “try” homelessness at around 30 years old. He noted what seemed like a conscious decision was a symptom of his mental illness – which, untreated, made conventional life and employment seem untenable.

Without the tools to treat or understand his mental illness, homelessness became a trap for Gordon Hawkins, who’s now been off the street for 30 years and volunteers regularly at Victoria’s Our Place Society. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

But living on the street became a trap.

“By then I was so sick I wasn’t capable of holding down work or any kind of structure, and that’s where the homelessness kind of slid in,” he said. “I couldn’t punch a clock, I couldn’t do an eight-hour shift. I couldn’t focus that much to do a job.”

It wasn’t until after a police incident that Hawkins was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The diagnosis was “a welcomed thing” for Hawkins, who now, 30 years later, has the tools to live life on his own terms.

“Even now, I’m very healthy and my world is still very weird,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

READ MORE: Mental Health in Great Victoria



nina.grossman@blackpress.ca

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