What does housing mean to you?

The "What Housing Means to Me" exhibit at the New West Public Library ponders the question

Some of the photos on display at ‘What Housing Means to Me’ at the New West Public Library’s main branch. NWPL/supplied.

With a housing crisis right across BC, many of us are no stranger to how difficult it can be to find somewhere to live.

Now, a number of women who have experienced housing precariousness and/or homelessness are sharing their insights on the topic through the What Housing Means to Me photovoice exhibit.

The showcase includes photographs taken by each woman, in a bid to shatter the stereotypes people may have about being unhoused. The photos on showcase were narrowed down from upwards of 1,300 snaps. In addition, recorded conversations with the participants are used to augment the work.

“Home is supposed to provide you with safety and protection. My home doesn’t warrant those feelings,” explains Lisa, who made the comments in the recorded portion of the project. “I am consumed with isolation, anxiety, and depression.

“When a bird feels unsafe, they are able to take off away from home. When a threatening home environment strikes, flying to find sanctuary feels safe to me. If I could, I would take off, and fly away, too.”

Lisa says she’s experienced these feelings in both a housed and unhoused settings. To add to the difficulty, she said she didn’t feel like she knew where she belonged.

“Like a bird feeling snared. I felt trapped.”

Fiercely believing in her strength, she added she didn’t realize how fragile she could be—adding that after the height of the pandemic, she’s felt like she’s in a pressure cooker to find a permanent place to stay.

“And there is no home…there’s so much homelessness out there. There’s no housing for me,” she says, noting that she’d lost a lot of supports as the pandemic went on. While resourceful, Lisa has found it tough to receive responses from many of the folks she’s reached out to.

“A lot of [landlords] have real high expectations of who they’re going to rent to. I’m not the kind of, type of person they want to rent to. I tell them, ‘I don’t do drugs, I don’t smoke, I don’t party…I don’t cause problems. But that’s not enough for some people, unfortunately.”

While Lisa is staying at Mazarene Lodge—modular housing in the Queensborough neighbourhood—she notes it’s temporary. Living in a shelter has made it challenging for her to do the things she loves doing, like helping others through volunteer work.

“It was so stressful trying to find housing that I gave up some of the things I would normally do to get housing first…I have a lot of goals and dreams just like anybody else.”

Like Lisa, Debbie, Jane, and Nicole are hoping people will understand how harmful misconceptions and stereotypes about a person can be—especially when they intersect with a variety of themes.

This collection of digital stories was made possible through a partnership between the New West Public Library and Douglas College. Artist-mentor and photographer Mihailo Subotic facilitated the project, while the Library’s Liz Hunter connected with the residents at Mazarene Lodge through regular visits; the library runs regular programming that allows it to meet vulnerable residents, in an effort to be more inclusive of their needs.

The showcase can be found on the second floor of the main branch in Uptown New West until Sept. 30.

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