'I feel like a criminal': Why a woman with a disability is squatting in a vacant home
After being renovicted, a 50-year-old woman on disability doesn't have enough money to afford rent
After years of struggling to find housing on a disability income, a 50-year-old grandmother is squatting in a vacant home.
Leona’s life changed after qualifying for disability benefits.
“When I went on disability I lost everything,” she told The Current. “You can’t have an income when you’re on disability, you can’t have savings when you’re on disability, you can’t have anything.”
Leona (who asked we only use her first name) described a system that has been unable to help her keep or obtain housing.
“They check into absolutely everything you have. You have to have depleted all your resources before you can apply. Once you’re on disability, you’re screwed. You think it’s a social safety net. It's not. It’s a trap.” *
Soon, Leona was forced to leave her life in Vancouver to move into a more affordable temporary rental in Chilliwack. When that disappeared, she headed further east, to a transition house in Hope.
Leona says she has applied for subsidized housing from Hope to Vancouver. She found there aren’t any available options for people in her position who own a pet and have a disability. (FVC has previously reported on the long wait times for subsidized housing.)
Now, with nowhere left to go and having been shuttled between social agencies, she is squatting in a vacant home.
*Editor: There are strict limits on asset levels and employment income for those on disability. Neither is set at zero, but individuals, for instance, cannot start receiving disability until they have less than $5,000 in belongings left.
FVC: Tell me a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?
Leona: I was born in Vancouver. I lived here most of my life. I raised my kids in Vancouver. I worked two jobs. This is where I raised my family, this is where my family is. It’s really hard for me to see how bad our city has become, really.
I think the first time I was homeless was in 2019, 2018. I just couldn’t find housing I could afford. It’s really expensive here. With the disability income, they allotted me $375 for rent; it’s impossible to find housing on that, so then I’m spending my support portion and it makes life unsustainable.
I can’t afford my bills, I can’t afford food because everything’s going to rent. It just makes it really hard. I did find a place for a while, but it sold to a developer. And they told me that the new owners were going to be moving in, but it ended up sitting empty for over a year after I left. Squatters moved in there, it turned into an absolute disaster. They cleaned it out now, and they’re renting it out for three times what I paid.
The fact that Leona has a dog and uses a walker has made it particularly difficult to find housing, she said.
When you apply for housing and you think that you’re going to be able to get in, they tell you: ‘If you fill out these supplemental application forms it will help you to get into housing.’ So you give them all this information, all this personal information, to somebody who’s going to be your landlord, and then I found out that they don’t even base it on need anymore. The subsidized housing places, they get access to the database and they literally just pick and choose. So if you have too many issues, they don’t want you. So all of the things that I thought were going to help me to find housing ended up being used against me.
I’ve been all over the place. It just depends on where I’ve been able to find a place. There are no wheelchair accessible, pet-friendly shelters anywhere from Vancouver to Hope. There is no space for anybody in a wheelchair with the dog, or with mobility issues—I’m not in a wheelchair I use a walker—but I still can’t climb the stairs or go on the top bunks or … the mats on the floor, God forbid, and those are the only options.
It’s really been hard. I finally found a place out in Hope. I was there for seven weeks at a transition house, but I timed out of there. You’re only allowed to be there really for two weeks when you’re homeless. If you’re escaping domestic violence, you can stay for up to 30 days and that’s their mandate. They’re not set up for people who are just homeless. Anyway, they ended up keeping me there for seven weeks because we couldn’t find a shelter anywhere else. The ministry was going to set me up in a hotel, but that will only cover me for a couple of days and then I’m on my own. So that’s kind of what happened. Now I’m on my own.
FVC: Do you mind if you go into a little bit more about where you're living right now?
Leona: I broke into a basement of a house that’s empty. I didn’t have any other options.
It’s a little bit much to find myself in this situation. I never thought I would be here.
Being on disability is eye-opening I'll tell you. Living on a provincial disability is impossible, the amount is not nearly enough—like, you look at the people who are making minimum wage, they can barely make it too, and our income is so much less, so much less. They raised the rates to $500 a month for shelter. But it’s impossible, like you can't find wheelchair accessible housing on $500 anywhere. And even trying to find shared space somewhere is really difficult when you have mobility issues. People rent out a room in their house, but usually it’s either up or down stairs.
I tried applying for housing. When I first applied for housing they offered me a tent, they told me the waitlist was going to be at least 10 years. I couldn’t even believe it. I lived in an RV for a little while and that was okay, but I don’t have a license anymore so that’s not an option for me.
FVC: How do you feel about your safety where you are right now?
Difficult and troubling experiences with shelters and the staff that operate them have left Leona reluctant to return.
Leona: Because nobody knows where I am. I feel kind of safe. I feel safer than I would at a shelter.
I went to a shelter once. I have MCAS (mast cell activation syndrome). I break out in hives when I come in contact with perfumes. So trying to be in a shelter with a bunch of people who—I know a lot of people who are addicted use a lot of perfume for various reasons. I can’t be around any of that. I can’t be around any kind of chemical cleaners. I break out in hives at a minimum, go into anaphylaxis at a maximum.
The shelter that I stayed at, the one in Hope, they were fantastic. It was a transition house though not a shelter so it’s a little bit different. They were really nice. They changed all the cleaners for me. The women that were staying there were fantastic. They were really careful about what they used in the house… You don’t get that in a shelter. It’s not the same kind of environment. If you get any kind of special treatment you’re a target.
FVC: You wrote on Twitter that you worked and paid into a system for 35 years to be left homeless as a grandmother. So how did you arrive at your current situation?
Leona: When I went on disability I lost everything. You can’t have an income when you’re on disability, you can’t have savings when you’re on disability, you can’t have anything. They check into absolutely everything you have. You have to have depleted all your resources before you can apply. Once you’re on disability, you’re screwed. You think it’s a social safety net. It's not. It’s a trap.
FVC: You mentioned that you receive $500 from disability that is supposed to pay for housing and so what has it been like to try to find a home with that money?
Leona: There is no housing with that money. Nobody will even look at me because I’m on disability. When you go and apply for a place, all of them tell you they want employment references, they want to be able to contact your job. They want to know how much money you make. I make $16,000 a year on disability. They won’t even look at me. I have applied for every single subsidized housing provider anywhere from Vancouver to Langley… I’ve applied to all of those. I’ve applied to co-ops everywhere, but again, they don’t want anybody who has—like I don’t have a job. Simple as that.
FVC: Why have you sought out to talk directly to David Eby?
Leona: He’s the one who decided our income, our rental income, should go up from $375 to $500 in 2023. This man was the housing minister. He knows damn well there’s no housing for us for that. He’s essentially sentencing disabled people to go homeless. The second they lose their current housing, there is nothing available for us.
And then they just want to push you into this supported housing where you have absolutely no freedom. You can’t have your family over, you can’t have your friends over. For somebody like me, I don’t go out a lot because going out means I’m going to have a reaction. So my friends and my family come to me. In a place like that I can’t have my grandkids over. They’re not even allowed in unless they’re over 16. They're young, they’re one and three.
It’s like they’re warehousing the poor, seriously. They’re either pushing you into a shelter or supported housing, there is nothing available for permanent housing. That seems to be the only thing they’re building is more supportive housing. I don’t understand why the government will not allow us to have regular housing. I don’t get it. I don’t know why they’re pushing all the supported housing. I realize there’s a need for it. But I’m sure there would be more than enough if they provided housing for the people who don’t need to be in supported housing to have regular housing.
FVC: What motivated you to start sharing your experiences on social media?
Leona: Desperation. I wasn’t getting any help from anywhere. There was nobody that was able to do anything to help me. I tried contacting my MLAs, they basically will refer you to services but the services don’t do anything to help you. The services are a run around, they tell you: ‘Oh, have you applied for BC Housing?’ Of course I’ve applied for BC Housing, I’m not new.
I applied for housing everywhere… I have this [housing support] worker… she’s supposed to be the worker that’s working with me. She’s on holiday now until the eighth. So I don’t even know who I’m supposed to contact.
I called [David Eby’s] office 37 days in a row before I finally got a response. I get a response from a lady named Sophie. She calls me back, she says, I’ll see what I can do for you. She tells me that she has called BC Housing on my behalf. And she called the Ministry of Housing on my behalf… I don’t know what she expected them to do because they can’t do any more than give me my regular cheque. They don’t do anything extra. They don’t want you to have anything extra. I don’t know who they think is going to help me. I’ve already talked to those people too and nothing has happened since.
They said, ‘Well, there’s nothing we can do for you.’ I said, I’d like to speak to Mr. Eby. She says, ‘Okay, I can give you an appointment for next Friday.’ I said, Okay, that’s great. I didn’t hear from her all week. I called every day because I was expecting her to call me back with a time. She didn’t call me back with a time so I showed up on Friday. I showed up there and basically they said, ‘Well, you’re not one of his constituents, we canceled all of his appointments today, but since we didn’t call you to confirm the appointment, you really didn’t have an appointment. You came here for nothing. And we can’t give you an appointment because you’re not a constituent. You have to contact his office, you have to contact him through Victoria,’ was essentially what I was told.
So that’s how I ended up squatting in a basement.
FVC: [Your friend] mentioned in her email about the importance of having a pet for many people. Can you maybe speak to that a little bit?
Leona: As I said, I don’t go out much, so sometimes I don’t have contact with people for weeks at a time. I really rely on my dog. I would be lost without her to be honest. She really keeps me going because otherwise it’s like—I don’t know, it’s hard to be on your own all the time.
FVC: What does it feel like now to be squatting in a home?
Leona: Well, it’s defeating. I never thought I would find myself in this position that’s for sure. I’m not a criminal. I’ve never broken into a house in my life… I feel guilty but I have nowhere else to go.
There’s no shelter space. There’s no housing. It’s this or a tent and I wouldn’t feel safe in a tent. At least here I have a door to close such as it is, until somebody shows up I guess. I don’t really know what I’m going to do, probably get charged with trespassing. I don’t know.
The Current sought to speak to BC’s Social Development Minister Shelia Malcolmson about Leona’s situation. The minister provided a statement about the work the government has already done:
“People need help when times are tough, and that is why our government has raised the rates four times, including a very recent increase in the shelter rate. More than 76,000 homes have been delivered or are underway.
“Our ministry provides support to British Columbians at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness with financial assistance and community supports. I encourage anyone facing these challenging situations to reach out to our ministry at 1-866-866-0800 or visit a ministry office in their community.”
Leona has been posting about her situation on Twitter, where she wrote that she brought cleaning supplies and will leave her space ‘cleaner than I found it.’ You can follow her at @WitchCrafts10.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.