Maggy Gisle will celebrate one year of sobriety this month, but like most things in her illustrious — at times unbelievable — life, the accomplishment is overshadowed by a stroke of bad luck.
As of May 1, Gisle has been homeless with two teenagers in tow, a moving container brimming with furnishings and no place to put anything, let alone a place to sleep.
She doesn’t seem infuriated or resentful, but hopeless; perhaps exhausted.
“There are loopholes in the system,” she told The NEWS in a state of frustration Tuesday morning.
Gisle explained she had a mutual agreement to end tenancy with her current landlord and planned on moving into a different house this month.
However, because she’s on disability, she wasn’t able to secure a damage deposit (instead she has to fill out an application) and at the 11th hour the home was snapped up by renters who were able to put a damage deposit down in cash.
Gisle recognizes neither landlord is in the wrong, but the situation certainly leaves her out in the cold.
And now she’s faced with finding a place to rent in arguably one of the country’s most desirable tourist destinations on the brink of summer.
Gisle said she receives $575 per month from her disability cheque to cover the cost of housing, but according to the B.C. Non Profit Housing Association’s rental housing index, the average rent in Parksville is $871 per month, a difference of nearly $300.
“Short-term housing for families is just not available,” she said. “There’s no tolerance for circumstance and directly, I’d say disability doesn’t support families moving at all, for any reason…We lost that place because I didn’t have the damage deposit in hand — all I had was paperwork to fill out.”
Qualicum Beach Coun. Neil Horner, council’s liaison to the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, said while people may not think homelessness exists in picturesque Parksville Qualicum Beach — it’s definitely here and it’s a problem.
“It’s not terribly visible,” said Horner. “People aren’t sleeping in front of doorways, but don’t kid yourself out in the rural areas it’s there.”
The task force and the Society of Organized Services (SOS) are currently working on a homelessness prevention program (HPP) in partnership with B.C. Housing providing outreach support to residents including rental subsidies.
Homelessness co-ordinator Sarah Poole said poverty is directly linked to homelessness.
“If you don’t have housing you can’t really have a job, you can’t build credit, you can’t access safety and security and food — all these things we take for granted,” said Poole. “The first step is providing safety and security and stability, which comes from housing.”
The HPP started in January and already has four success stories, but Poole said there are 67 homeless people who have been identified as “in-need” in this community alone. Moreover, Poole said those 67 people are only “a small representation of the reality” of our homeless population.
“And that doesn’t include the people who are in a house but barely hanging on every month,” she said. “The most affordable housing is often far away from city centres, where there is no public transportation so we’re asking people to find their own way into town, which is costly itself.”
Horner said the first time he met Gisle was two winters ago when he started volunteering with the Manna Van, giving out free coffee Saturday mornings to the homeless.
“I met Maggy during coffee patrol,” he recalled. “I was really struck by her. She told me some of the tale of her life and she really just struck me as perceptive and honest and real and I appreciated her for that.”
Horner said the issue of homelessness strikes a deep, emotional chord.
“I’ve had some experience with being homeless myself as a teenager. It was just for a few weeks but I tell you, those were the longest two weeks,” he said. “It was the worst time in my life. It wasn’t just that I was homeless, it was like, what do you do during the day? You wander around with no purpose, no destination, you walk and you walk and you walk and you have no money. Maybe you can get a cup of coffee, but it was a living nightmare for sure.”
Horner admits he identifies with homelessness “viscerally,” a reason he’s taken on the position as council liaison on the task force.
“The housing initiatives are a real step forward in addressing it,” he said. “Yeah, we’re not there yet and realistically, will we ever have zero homelessness? I doubt it. I don’t know if anywhere will ever have that, but in a lot of places it’s getting a lot worse and if we can keep a handle on it and keep it from getting worse that’s good.”
But it’s not good enough.
Gisle has used most of the local services available for those in need and she’s still struggling.
“The Manna Van covers a huge umbrella and so does the SOS and the Salvation Army, but they’re still not meeting the amount of homeless people there are,” she said.
“The resources in our community are at full capacity and then some. We’re not meeting the needs of the people we have here. We’ve got lots of people who are like me, who have to rely on soup kitchens and food banks.”
She said she appreciates the services provided, yet often feels her life doesn’t fit within “the guidelines of the system,” despite turning her life around from what it once was.
Today, Gisle, a 49-year-old First Nation woman with a petite yet healthy frame carrying an uncomfortable-looking neck brace wears a sanguine smile begging a thousand questions.
Her arms are covered in scars, a faint reminder of the past.
She was born in Prince Rupert, the child of two residential school survivors.
“My dad had children to abuse them,” she recalled, and for the first time her veil of confidence drops. “He was a pedophile so I was a pretty messed up unit by the time I got to my adopted family.”
She said her earliest memory is watching her younger brother succumb to hypothermia.
At age three, Gisle and her twin sister were adopted but there are some things you never forget.
Time went on and life only grew more complicated.
Gisle spent 16 years on and off working Vancouver’s downtown east side.
“On a bad day I was a prostitute, on a good day I was a drug dealer,” she said. “I held up drug houses to make money.”
She’s been to 24 recovery houses and 22 treatment centres.
“In hindsight because I didn’t care, the streets didn’t scare me,” she said.
But eventually something did scare her straight off the streets.
“I have 64 friends on Vancouver’s missing women’s list,” she said.
“So I got clean, I left the streets on Valentines Day in 1998…I was a month and a half clean and sober and I did the wild thing once and got pregnant with my daughter,” she said, with a chuckle. “I joined a women’s recovery group, a women’s group for those pregnant and recovering, I got an alcohol and drug counsellor.”
Gisle went to school and became a care-aid graduating with a 98 per cent average. She volunteered as an HIV/Aids prevention worker as well as served in HepC and needle exchange programs. She worked as a care aid in Powell River. She’s done a handful of public speaking events, bravely broadcasting the intimate details of her past. She’s been featured in 27 documentaries, many about Vancouver’s missing women.
In 2007, she had to go on disability after a work related incident left her bedridden.
“I was working as a nurse and I got stabbed by a needle and I went on the antivirals but because I’m a recovering addict I have the internal organs of someone who is 10 years older than me,” she explains. “The antivirals attacked my immune system.”
She’s since been on disability relying strictly on government assistance leaving little leeway for change.
This month, she said she “robbed Peter to pay Paul” dipping into her support fund, reserved for food, to pay for the cost of a moving container, despite having nowhere to go.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “It’s frustrating because I see so many places that are empty in Parksville, I see so many houses, so many places that could be something to house people.”
Gisle’s worked hard to stay clean and admits she’s relapsed a few times but May 18 will mark one year of sobriety, a feat she can’t help but smile about.