Helen lives at Savards. Savards is a 30-bed Homes First shelter for women with a long history of homelessness, mental illness and substance use. It was the first of its kind and remains unique in the City of Toronto.
From the street Savards looks part store-front, part low-rise apartment. Its shatter resistant glass front door leads to a narrow hallway that opens to a main floor dinning/common area always full of women coming and going, resting, thinking, playing cards, watching tv, sipping tea and chatting.
At 26 Helen was a single parent with two young children. She worked two jobs to maintain their basement apartment in Scarborough and provide food, clothing and pay the bills. They managed but just barely. Like her mother, she struggled for many years with depression and anxiety.
One night she came home to find a letter from her landlord. He had sold the house she was living in – she had 2 months to find another place. Helen looks back now at that night as “the beginning of the end”. She couldn’t find another apartment that she could afford. Her anxiety worsened, she lost her jobs, her confidence, and then her ability to hold it all together. She tried drinking to, as she says, “take the edge off” and things got worse. Her family lived in Africa and was unable to help her. Helen attempted suicide. Her children were put into foster-care and she was admitted to the hospital. For the next several years Helen lived in hospitals and hostels.
Upon being discharged from the hospital for the third time a nurse at St. Mikes called Savards. She was in luck. There was a bed. The nurse gave her the address, directions and a token. Helen now had a home. That was two years ago. Helen was 38.
On my visit Helen showed me her knitting box, a blanket she is working on and some of the infant caps she made. Helen is a proud member of the Sa’vy Ladies. This small group of women at Savards knit and sew. They create, talk, share and support one another. The Sa’vy ladies have a table booked at the St. Paul’s United Church Christmas Craft sale in November to sell their creations.
Helen is putting her life back together. She is stronger now than she has been in years. She feels useful again. She hopes to see her children one day soon. And she can imagine herself living on her own back in the community, taking care of herself. She can do all of this because first, she got a home.
As she riffled through her knitting box Helen talked about how much she looks forward to the knitting group get-togethers and how exciting it was that people might actually buy what she made. She plans to use the money she gets to buy a Christmas gift for her daughter. She pulled a small ball of wool out of her knitting box, looked at it critically and gave it to me. “Don’t you need it?”, I asked. “No”, she said, “it’s orange and it’s not soft. It’ll never work for a baby’s blanket.” I accepted the gift, not sure what I would do with it.