Homelessness Action Week: Joseph and Roberta

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In recognition of Homelessness Action Week October 11 to October 17, Vancity Buzz will be featuring profiles and interviews with former residents of the Downtown East Side, organizations trying to make a difference, and the history of one of Vancouver’s most notorious neighbourhoods.

This series is presented in partnership with the Union Gospel Mission, which offers support, programs, and resources for people looking to overcome their addictions, re-enter the work force, and take back control of their lives.

On Saturday, October 17, 2015 UGM invites you to learn about the DTES community through the Hello Neighbour Project, which offers neighbourhood walks and a community event at Oppenheimer Park. For more info visit www.ugm.ca/haw.

More information on the Union Gospel Mission can be found online.


Joseph and Roberta

The relationship between “Joseph” and “Roberta” started much the same way as any other; Roberta was working, bussing tables, Joseph struck up a conversation, and a connection was made. What most people can’t say is that when they met, they were both homeless.

At the moment of his birth, Joseph’s life was complicated, and it only got more so from there. Born in a detention centre for women, the second he was born he was in the custody of the foster care system. He lived with the same family for five years, before being reclaimed by his biological parents.

“It’s that period that was the hell part. There was absolutely not very much that was positive there,” he says. “It was a lot of violence, it was a scared mother, starving, ill-fitting clothes and shoes. I just hated it. After they got me back the only two things I would do was cry or not listen.”

In that seven year period, Joseph was exposed to many horrible things. Between abuse at the hands of his uncle, witnessing the accidental death of a cousin, and the suicide of his abuser, at 12-years-old he’d had enough.

“At 12 or so I went back to my adopted family, but it was already too late,” he says. “I was already angry, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere, I felt all this – I call it crap now.”

Anger, fear, and a lack of trust typified the next five years of Joseph’s life, culminating in a manslaughter conviction at the age of 17, where he served five years of a nine year sentence.

It was in 2002, following the death of his daughter, that Joseph came to the Downtown Eastside for the first time, in an attempt to escape his life. After having never touched hard drugs before, he began using crack cocaine for the first time. Within four months he’d sold his car, emptied out his bank accounts, and ended up sleeping in a doorway on Cordova Street.

“I was hiding my face, ashamed and embarrassed,” he says. “But nobody knew me.”

After a few years on the streets, Joseph sought help through the UGM’s Alcohol & Drug recovery program, and a similar program at Round Lake. Within 17 days of the 34 day Round Lake program, Joseph ended up in a psychiatric ward.

“It’s like this – some doors are meant to stay closed,” he says. “It was just so bad.”

But with the help of the UGM’s 12 Steps, and the counseling he’s received over the years, Joseph is able to come to terms with his past, or at least live with it. His tumultuous childhood, which put him on his path, is something he says many, if not all, people struggling on the DTES have in common.

“If you have the proper upbringing at home from your parents, you’d never see anybody down here,” he says. Any way you look at it, I know for a fact that if everybody had the proper home setting as kids, this wouldn’t be happening here today.”

It is something he and Roberta share. Raised by an alcoholic and abusive father, Roberta grew up with barriers between herself, her family, and her peers.

“You grow up in isolation. You can’t identify with the kids at school,” she says. “You can’t bring them home, you don’t want to show them that part of the life. You’re afraid to go over to their house, you’re afraid something might happen to mom.”

So Roberta dedicated herself to her work. With a 24-year-long career in the financial industry – which is what led her to Vancouver in 1992 – one day she just couldn’t get out of bed.

“I’m too much of a human person,” she says. “I couldn’t deal with masks. Couldn’t deal with telling people no, not caring that their business was going to fold if you didn’t give them that loan. I stayed a long time for the money – I got corrupted on that part – but it ate away at me.”

On top of the empathy, the loneliness Roberta felt on a day-to-day basis only further contributed to her mental state.

“Getting up at four the morning I never met anybody here,” she says. “You’re burnt by three o’clock. You go home and you go to sleep, and I kept doing it over and over. That’s how I ended up here.”

After living off her RRSPs until they went dry, Roberta ended up in a shelter. She began volunteering and working part-time at different shelters, in an attempt to give back and get back on her path.

It was here that her and Joseph met. At a drop-in called The Living Room, Roberta was cleaning tables while Joseph was simply visiting.

“As I’m going by to go to the bathroom I said to her ‘community services?’ ‘Cause that’s what they do, clean tables. She said ‘no’ and that’s how we got to talking,” says Joseph.

They’ve now been together for six years. What they’ve gained in each other is something both had struggled with for a long time.

“The main [thing] that’s come out of this for me is trust,” says Joseph.”

“Exactly,” says Roberta. “Regaining trust, having a friend, someone to talk to.”

“I mean you go through what you have to go through. Even your work people. There’s not a real trust there. There’s just working people,” says Joseph. “You want to fit in, you want to belong, you want to be acknowledged, but it’s not happening. Then along comes this stranger you don’t know and they’re making you feel good, but for the real reasons.”

After living on the streets and in shelters, Joseph and Roberta now have a place of their own. They’re able to give back, volunteering at a number of charities around the DTES, including cooking for the

“It’s boring. We’re old people. Unless we’ve gotta do errands or appointments, volunteering, our little jobs, other than that we’re at home,” says Joseph. “We have our four or five friends, that we know are our real friends.”

The couple says that in their worst days, they’d never expected that one day they would  describe themselves as ‘boring old people.’

“You don’t see that far ahead,” says Roberta.

Finding each other has given each of them someone to lean on, someone to share themselves with, and someone with whom they can look forward. It’s the shared history of struggle that united them.

“Two people that have great lives at home will meet, and they’ll hit it off,” says Joseph. “Two people that going through a struggle at the same level, will make them get along. It’s hard to explain. And I almost don’t want to explain it. It’s good.”

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Shawn O'Hara Shawn is a Staff Writer at Vancity Buzz. He loves writing about news, arts, movies, comedy, and culture. Some would argue Shawn is too old to still play Dungeons & Dragons. Shawn would disagree.

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