Linda Chamberlain has been a Mainstay Housing tenant since 1996. She completed a 6 year term on the Board of Directors, and was President during the last year.
Is it ever nice having your own apartment. I come from living in rooms, basements, dirty places and living on the street, in hostels. All my stuff was in boxes, and I could never see them or open them up. I remember going to bed with my boots on and hat and scarf, it was so cold. I've had people come into my room, kicking down the doors. Then the landlord comes into your room and goes through your stuff. It was like a nightmare. I was sick in hospital all the time because I was living in such a depression and in terrible conditions. I was in and out of the hospital every six months. I remember I had to live out in the bushes. At Kingston Road, there's a park there and I had to get in a plastic bag so I wouldn't get wet and hide so no one would see me. It was terrible. I wanted to die because that was no life living out like that. It was bad enough with the illness, hearing voices and seeing things. But then to live in poor conditions. You just didn't want to go on.
I lived places where when they knew you had mental illness, they'd walk across the street like you had leprosy.
I come from St. John New Brunswick. We lived on a farm. My mother took me out of school when I was in grade 3, and I had to look after my sisters. I had to make their lunch and then peel potatoes and stuff. I was only 9 years old. My father died in a freak accident on Christmas Day. When I was around 13, my mother sent me to Toronto. I was with my Grandmother, and that's a horror story because my Grandmother said, “You can't just live here, you have to pay rent, so you have to go to work.” I didn't have any skills. I was 13 years old, and I couldn't hardly read the signs. I kept walking along Queen St., because I didn't want to get lost and I saw a sign that said “something wanted,” so I went in and asked for a job. Well, I got a job in a shoe store. I told them I was 17 or 18. I didn't know how to use the cash register. I couldn't find the shoes because I didn't know the numbers, but the guy I worked with used to get them for me. And he made up the bill. I just put them on the woman's foot. But one day he didn't come in and there were 5 women in there and I couldn't find a shoe, I couldn't do the till, and I got fired. I moved on and got another job. I went from one place to the other. I always thought I was stupid, but I think I was smarter than I thought. I was street smart. I had to learn as I went along. It was survival.
I guess I was 20 when I got sick. I ended up in the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry. After, they gave me medication. There was no doctor follow-up. The doctor didn't tell me that I was schizophrenic. They'd let me out, and away I went again. Because of the medications, I was drooling, and then I'd stop taking them sometimes because I had to go to work. And I was so hyper. I kept getting fired because I would scare people. Then I went for a job as a waitress. I couldn't remember who ordered what but the only reason the owner kept me was because I amused the customers. Then he closed the business and I lost the job. It was a terrible life.
If homeless people don't have mental illness when they start, they certainly do once they get out on the street.
When it's time to go home and you have no place to - that's a killer. I remember walking around for hours trying to figure out where I'm going to have to sleep and where to go the bathroom. And you can't walk into stores because people won't let you use the toilets, you have to buy something. You haven't got any money and you look at that donut and you'd really like to have that donut. Believe me, that's when you don't want to live because you have no existence. Nothing to start with - no clothes, you stink, no place to take a bath.
I had another job as a waitress and the owner was after me sexually and I said, please, I just want to do this job, it's only $100 a week and the rent was $100 a week. I lived on the tips. He tried to touch me, so I left. Then I couldn't get work at all. They wouldn't hire me. I didn't know about welfare. I was living in a place where people from Queen Street Psychiatric Hospital lived - we all had a room and shared the kitchen. The guy upstairs told me I should go to welfare. So he took me and the woman came and put me on FBA [Family Benefits Assistance]. Then I went back in hospital for quite a long time.
When I came out, I got this great doctor, who introduced me to Progress Place, a program which gave me confidence and self-esteem. I truly felt part of a community. In time Progress Place both helped me get a part time job and find my apartment at Mainstay. I don't forget where I came from. I remember every day. When I wake up in that beautiful bedroom and the sunshine coming in, I say, “Oh, god, I'm living on a bed, I've got a real bed I'm sleeping on, not a spring sticking up, and no bugs. So, I really appreciate what I have. I'd never been able to have a cat.” I used to have to sneak a cat in, and it got kicked out. Now I can have my cat.
Is it ever nice going out and coming home. You feel secure. You have your home where you can cook and you have your own bathroom and bedroom. I can fix the place up the way I want. Someone said to me, “You're not supposed to know how to do this stuff.” They think that we're stupid. I said, "Listen, we have mental illness, we're not retarded." I learned that even though I have no education, I have talent. I have things I can do that I didn't know I could do. For years my mother said, “Linda, I wish I would have kept you in school, you would have been somebody today.” I said, “Mom, I am somebody.”
You see that piece of log over the window? I went down to the lakeshore and found it behind one of those hotels at the beach. I brought it home because it's so nice. I shaved off the wood, and I hung it up to hang plants on. I've never had a plant in my life. It's like I live in a garden of paradise. So I really have a lot of respect and love for Mainstay and for the building I live in.