Of the 61 years of her life, Linda Chamberlain has spent nearly a third of them homeless, hungry and harassed. Some days, she said, she wouldn’t even feel the hunger she was so numb.
“My day consisted of walking all over the place, trying to find something to eat, a place to go to the bathroom and something to drink,” she said.
On Friday, Chamberlain spoke at Housing as a Human Right, a discussion about homelessness. The discussion took place in a condo at 155 Dalhousie St. in Toronto. It included lawyers, activists and documentary filmmakers. Chamberlain, now an activist herself with an organization called ‘the Dream Team,’ told the story of her own experiences with homelessness.
Chamberlain, a Toronto woman, was homeless and illiterate from age 13 into her 40s. She spoke about the horrors she faced all those years. She had little or nothing and feared everything.
“I didn’t know I had a right to hot water,” she said. “I would jump up and down to just to get warm and get into the shower.”
Chamberlain said she was often hungry. The food she got from places such as the Salvation Army was so hard that she had to suck on it to properly eat it. But her biggest fear was being attacked. She said she would search out sleeping places where she could hide during the night. When she got attacked, Chamberlain said she was too scared to go to the police for help.
Even when she wasn’t sleeping in a park, the houses where she roomed were no better.
“Living in rooming houses, men would kick down the door to get on top of you,” she said. “And I thought, ‘That’s what I get for being in the wrong place.’ It didn’t matter where I went.”
Her hard life was complicated already with difficult personal problems. Chamberlain said she is bi-polar, a paranoid schizophrenic and a recovered alcoholic.
It was when she went to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for help with her alcoholism that her life turned around. It was in the facility’s rehab centre that she learned to count, read and write.
The centre also provided a one-bedroom apartment in affordable housing. Chamberlain said it was hard to accept at first, but with support, she accepted the apartment and set to work building her life. CAMH made all the difference.
All that is behind her now. Chamberlain now works at CAMH. She is a stand-up comedienne, plays the bongo drums as a form of therapy, and is a passionate advocate for human rights. She says helping people is also therapeutic, as it helps her cope with her own past, and give back.
Phillip Dufresne is another human rights advocate with the Dream Team. He thinks that the key in helping people such as Chamberlain is getting the government more involved.
“I don’t think it’s enough for us to try and force the government to create a law making housing a human right,” he said. “We also have to educate people too. Once people understand the issue, then they will be more willing to come on board.”
“There’s so many people out there we can help, to change their lives. It just takes one place (to live) … It just takes one chance,” she said.