My Story: If I had not been homeless

January 26, 2021

In this blog post, Hilary L. Chapple shares her experience of homelessness and where the journey led her. Hilary sits on the Steering Committee of the Women’s National Housing & Homelessness Network. She is a Community Leader and Homeless/Poverty and LGBTQ2S Advocate 


By Hilary L. Chapple

I guess nobody wants to be homeless, right? Including me. But you guessed it, it happened to me. Hidden homelessness and couch-surfing. What did I know? That was not homelessness, right? Wrong. It was. 

There was a lot that happened to get me to that point. An abusive marriage, severe rejection by friends, some family members and my ex-wife. Fortunately, I did not have an alcohol or drug addiction. Thank Goodness. But I was suffering from severe chronic trauma, stress and a mild depression, which is called Dysthymia.  I suffered a mental breakdown at the end of 2012 before my marriage was over.  

I had separated from my abusive wife in September 2012 and I did not realize at the time why I just could not hold down a good job.  I could not pay the rent on our townhouse; my car payment and utilities were so far behind. And I was hungry.  What to do, what to do. 

Finally, it was decision time. I had a long-time friend in Edmonton who had told me when finding out about my unhappy marriage that I could come up north and get my act together. So, I left Calgary. However, I made arrangements about the unpaid rent and also sold everything possible that I could to raise much needed funds. I also gave a ton of stuff away just to downsize. I dropped off the rest of my belongings at my late sister’s place. 

Edmonton here I come. Was it a mistake? No. Did it relieve my stress and trauma? No. 

But I was warm and most of the time I ate okay and had hot showers and clean towels. But for over two years, I lived in a bed-bug infested hole and I slept on a concrete basement floor to a bedroom with no room for my personal belongings, which were in tote bags.  I lived in 7 separate places on 11 separate occasions while homeless. In Edmonton, I was in an apartment on my own for one year.   

And yes, I was still stressed and in extreme trauma. 

In May of 2014 I came back home to Calgary for a month in a place I’d rather call a secondary suite, which I know now is illegal. Still is, I checked. No receipts of rent or damage deposit paid, no job, barely enough food and I had to “borrow” from my two roommates to eat a little. There was a two-piece cooking unit and a laundry sink to wash dishes. As it turns out, my landlady was snooping my mail, her three kids were rude, lazy and violent and I was called a thief (by the way, I am not). If given the opportunity, I would have paid back the “borrowed” food as soon as I could. 

I explained I could not pay the last half of that month’s rent on time and she (not her husband) made me feel so uncomfortable. It was time to go, again.  

I packed but I had nowhere to go and left all of my belongings behind. I stayed for two nights at a casual friend’s mom’s condo in a ritzy area of Calgary. I ate and managed to contact EI to get my back money released. Not on time, however. I tried to get a free truck to move my belongings to their garage and a place to live until my EI was back paid (no luck), and I scrambled for bus tickets, had $40 to my name and nowhere to go. I would up in a Tim Horton’s in Midnapore, buying cheap minutes for my cellphone trying and trying to get help. That night I found my way to an all-night restaurant staying awake, crushed, and in extreme panic. A sympathetic waitress took pity on me with free coffee and a snack. By this time, I knew all of my belongings except the clothes I had on, were gone. About $10,000 worth. 

Finally, a friend in Red Deer felt sorry for me and after scrambling for some kind of breakfast, she picked me up and took me to Red Deer. Then my EI came through and I had to go back to Edmonton again. Long story short, I was in four separate homes in a three-month period with an abusive employer. And I was homeless again. 

By this time, I was a complete mess. Time to come home to Calgary, and I begged for help. 

My sister got me an interview at the Mary Dover House Shelter and I left Edmonton for good. The end of this part of my story is I was home again. I did live at Mary Dover House for 15 months and I finally had the help I needed, and I knew what I had to do. By the time I had my own home I had been living two years, one month and 24 days homeless, not including the beg bug stint in Edmonton. Ten months and five days as hidden homeless.   

Living with suitcases permanently packed is traumatic in itself. My experience of hidden homelessness was devastating for me and I lived in constant fear. On four separate occasions I moved backed to my friend Teresa’s, which turned out to be heart wrenching and severely straining to our relationship with her and her kids. How could I explain to them what was going on if I did not know I was homeless myself?   

Now, time for the good stuff. 

When I lived in shelter, one of my first thoughts was to find myself; individually and part of the larger group. Where did I fit in as a part of the Mary Dover House Community?  I had questions.

  1. How was I going to make friends?
  2. Was there staff that I could turn to for support?
  3. How could I get involved?
  4. Income, food and clothing – how was that going to happen?
  5. Lastly, could I overcome my fears and be strong?

Goals, objectives and healing were the next passage in this overwhelming emotional journey that I found myself in. 

Who do I blame, myself or others in my circle?  Why was I here and was I supposed to be here?  There was no one to blame, including me.  As my late sister told me, blame is a wasted emotion. So, this is where I was at and I had to move forward. And yes, I realized early on that I was supposed to be right here, right now. If I did not have to worry about a bed to sleep on, I could focus my inner self on healing and moving forward.   

“To heal the pain, you first must find the pain and accept it” – Dr. Gabor Mate 
So I moved forward. 

As I had done a lot of media interviews when I was an LGBTQ Activist, the management at YWCA asked me to do a couple of public relations and media stints. This is one of them I did and it is interesting as the conversation says some about my individual poverty and homelessness, and me as a woman. Check out my interview at the Soul of the City 14 Speakers’ Forum: click here to learn more about my story of healing. 

After my appearance at Soul of the City, my life started to change for the positive, and quickly. 

Once I injured my back, no more retail for me. A change in career and a new challenge was what I needed. However, I had two jobs while homeless but it was just not my cup of tea. And my back also was re-injured at this time.

I was invited to a Poverty Talks meeting and joined the Advisory Committee under the direction and guidance of Vibrant Communities Calgary. I went to the ‘Homeless Charter of Rights’ launch and then was invited to join the Client Action Committee of the Calgary Homeless Foundation. I was asked to do some media and public service announcements for our community. And then I was hooked and knew that this is what I wanted to do when the time was right. Needless to say, I am a huge fan of building network and community.

I could write a book on my last two and a half years of this journey of mine, but here is the Reader’s Digest version:

I met a girl. I was ready to take that step of dating but frightened after my previous experience. We had checked each other out on two dating websites but as neither of us had subscribed to these sites, we could not chat. I took the plunge and bought a subscription and she did at that same time. Coincidence or fate. You be the judge. 

Once we met, I knew she was the one and we fell in love quickly and after only three months I asked her to marry me. She said yes. And after six months of dating she asked to be my Housing First and share her home with me and her daughter. I was nervous, excited and petrified but on Christmas Eve 2015, I moved in and I quick drinking. 

I got involved quickly in my community. I took the Working with Homeless Population Certificate at the University of Calgary – Faculty of Social Work, completed two courses in Non-Profit Management at Mount Royal University as well. 

I have worked with amazing and compassionate people who have taught me so much. Through them, I have learned more about Canada’s Indigenous Culture and Colonization. I have established a great working relationship with Calgary’s’ own Mayor Naheed Nenshi and many members of Calgary City Council and many MLAs and MPs. And most importantly, I have more friends than I ever had before.  Folks who I love and respect. 

A short list of my learning’s and Community Involvement:

  • Basic Income and Living Wage 
  • Payday Lending and Financial Inclusion 
  • Sliding Scale with Calgary Transit 
  • Harm Reduction and yes, I carry a Naloxone Kit 
  • Calgary’s Charter of Homeless Rights 
  • Voting Rights for the Homeless 
  • Spoken Word and building Grassroots teams 
  • Human Rights 
  • The Longest Night of the Year – Calgary’s Memorial for our deceased Homeless 
  • The Calgary Homeless Memorial Project.  

I have been a keynote speaker and a workshop initiator, and presenter at five National Conferences on Ending Homelessness, and a Poverty Reduction Conference, plus a Data Sharing Conference and so much more. 

Currently I am building a toolkit for Housing First for LGBTQ2S, domestic violence, refugees that covers diversity, equity and inclusion in Canada’s homeless serving sector. I am very excited about this and will hopefully gain some Community Stakeholder Engagement and a grant for my work to continue.  I have already designed a Training Presentation and with that produced a Data Analysis Report of the Community Engagement that I did in Calgary.

I did lose my dear sister while I was in the shelter but thanks to my wife, shelter staff and my counsellor, I got through the unexpected tragedy of losing my closest family member. And a year later my great-niece passed as well. I am still having a hard time with this but thanks to the love and support of my friends, I am hanging in there. 

If I had not become homeless …these incredible opportunities would not have happened to me. Friendships built, love gained, a new family, and a career that I love and I am very good at. I am now a very confident woman who has no fear and knows how to love and is…no longer homeless.