Elisheva Passarello is a social justice advocate, photographer, designer, and entrepreneur in Toronto, Ontario.
On October 12, 2012, I was evicted from my apartment and for the very first time in my life I became homeless. That night, there were no beds available anywhere in Toronto so I was forced to sleep on the street. At five o'clock in the morning, I found a friend who took me in for a few months. I learned about the women-only shelters and landed on the doorstep of YWCA Toronto on January 30, 2013.
I had cycled in and out of poverty throughout my life. I was in a foster home and became a ward of the court, beginning life on my own at 16 years of age. In the two years leading up to losing my apartment in 2012, I had asked social services for help. I was told over and over again by many social service workers that until I was homeless, there was nothing they could do to help me. In so many ways, I fell through the cracks.
I was told over and over again by many social service workers that until I was homeless, there was nothing they could do to help me. In so many ways, I fell through the cracks.
I faced many barriers that made it almost impossible to lift myself out of homelessness and begin piecing my life back together. I was unable to secure supportive housing and a healthy, safe place to live. I could not afford urgent dental surgery for a life threatening infection and I was not able to access counseling and proper healthcare. For two years, I asked various levels of government, social services, and healthcare professionals for help. I kept asking, but it felt like no one was listening.
I experienced homelessness for 1,346 days. I do not plan on ever being there again. The longer a woman experiences homelessness, the longer it takes to recover. The trauma is real. It affects all aspects of your life.
Your mental health gets worse over time. Families are torn apart and services become more difficult to access. I was homeless for much longer than anyone ever should be. I am just beginning the recovery process of this four year journey.
Transitional housing allowed me to begin assessing and identifying the damage from the trauma of the past 40 years. I met a very supportive social worker who introduced me to art expression and mental health workshops. Often, that is all it takes to begin the process of rebuilding your life -- one person who believes in you, will treat you with dignity, and can connect you to the right resources.
I experienced homelessness for 1,346 days. I do not plan on ever being there again. The longer a woman experiences homelessness, the longer it takes to recover.
Receiving proper mental health support changed my life. During a mental health workshop, I realized that I had been living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for most of my life. Identifying PTSD led me to get proper supportive healthcare. The journey of learning to live with a mental illness has many challenges and I am constantly facing stigma and judgement from others. Over time, I have learned how to manage my symptoms.
Art has played a profound role in my recovery. YWCA Toronto's art expression program and jewelry-making activities led to a breakthrough in my own personal development -- unexpectedly -- and allowed me to explore and develop my creative side.
Photography became instrumental in preparing me for a new beginning. I am a self-taught photographer. I fell in love with the craft. I was encouraged to show my work publicly and I have organized several exhibits. Showing my photography to the public instills a sense of pride and accomplishment in me that I have never experienced before, and sets the foundation for me as an entrepreneur.
The biggest problem is that women like me go unheard. We feel undervalued. It feels like our lived experiences of homelessness and escaping violence hold no weight. Our stories should be used to mobilize change.
Systemic barriers are a constant problem. I do not have housing options, simply because affordable housing does not exist. Toronto's social housing wait list is over 97,000 households long and the majority waiting are women. Affordable housing is often in unsafe neighborhoods and living conditions are often dangerous and unhealthy and do not have supports for people living with disabilities.
The biggest problem is that women like me go unheard. We feel undervalued. It feels like our lived experiences of homelessness and escaping violence hold no weight. Our stories should be used to mobilize change. Lived experience has real-life details that should drive strategies like the federal government's national housing strategy.
I learned so much from being homeless. As an advocate, I want to move forward using my story to repair the world, and help create affordable supportive housing. I want to make sure no woman has to go through what I went through.
I want the government and the public to know about the challenges women like me have faced and continue to face every day. I hope that my story gives courage to other women who have lived experience of homelessness to rise and tell their story.
I want to make sure women who have lived in shelters are consulted and that our experiences are used in guiding reform. And I want real change -- we can't solve homelessness until we build affordable housing. It's simply not acceptable that over 97,000 households are on the waiting list for a safe place to call home.
We need access to safe, affordable housing now. The government must act. There is so much trauma and pain I could have avoided if I had only received the support I needed. I experienced homelessness for 1,346 days. I should have never been without a home.
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