Thank You Shoppers Foundation for Women’s Health and Street Health Client Story – Kathy

Street Health and the women involved in the All Women’s Drop-In thank Shoppers Foundation for Women’s Health for their support. The drop-in is now in the second year and is filling a vital service need for women in the downtown east region of Toronto.

Finding Her Way Forward

Experiencing distress from an early age can have effects which last a lifetime and leave people looking for ways to cope. At Street Health, we see clients who have endured abuse and trauma and now continue to have their situation compounded by stigma, discrimination, poor health and no housing. Fortunately we also see those who, through their years of lived experience, are at a point of reflection and hope. Kathy’s story is about heartbreak and resilience. We thank her for sharing her memories and insights to build awareness of the needs of those experiencing homelessness.

Growing up in Komoka, Kathy had a younger brother and sister. “I never felt connected to my mother or grandmother because they were abusive,” shares Kathy.  “Lacking a positive bond was a gap, even though I didn’t realize that until many years later.”

Kathy’s first use of a substance was at age 10 when she was given diet pills for weight loss: these pills were a combination of amphetamines and barbiturates.

Her confidence was brutally crushed in Grade 7 after being raped by a classmate and then having the adults she turned to offer no compassion or support. “I was blamed for something that was an assault on my body and mind.”

She completed Grade 10 in a program that provided work experience in hospital and retail placements. She and a friend then returned to school for Grade 11 and 12. During this time Kathy used drugs and alcohol to escape the difficulties she faced both at home and in the community. “Back then there wasn’t any knowledge of harm reduction or trauma informed supports. Drug users shared syringes, cooking spoons and everything else.  You just wanted to hide your drug use from everyone.  If they found out, you were a drug user they wanted to put you in a psych facility. Several times my dad tried to make me go, but I saw what happened to a friend – she couldn’t talk, and she drooled….it was like nobody was home. Loosing that friend was another huge loss. l really missed her, we used to keep each other safe.”

Kathy recalls that a series of encounters with the law and some family deaths led her to run away. It was in these years she first experienced homeless while in abusive relationships that continued to support drug use and fear. Soon she moved to Toronto relying on escort and sex work.

She recalls the first intervention that allowed her to think about her future. She was “out of her mind” high on MDMA and trying to break into a house.  The police were called, and rather than charging her they took her to a local shelter.  That was her first engagement with a social service agency, and the first time she had an interaction and wasn’t judged or discriminated against because of her drug use.  A seed was planted.

In the early 1990’s Kathy had reduced her drug use. After several miscarriages she had a daughter, followed by a second daughter in 1999. During these years she relied on downtown east-end community services to fill the gaps and allow her children to thrive. “There was a parent-child drop-in at Gerrard and Leslie and we were regulars at the Applegrove Drop-In,” Kathy remembers. “Once Jessica and JD were teenagers they were volunteering with me at community meals. I always shared with them that “giving back” is the best way to live.”

Kathy was one of the first community members who volunteered to help when Street Health’s Drop-In expanded to offer a session specifically for those who identify as women. The All Women’s Drop-In provides a space for community members to connect, learn, share and most importantly be themselves. Each week there is a participant-identified health topic including new issues and refresher sessions about the vital role of harm reduction, education, prevention, and screening. “Our drop-in has become a regular opportunity to share and connect. Our group was very concerned that the funding for these sessions would end. When we learned that Shoppers Foundation for Women’s Health was supporting our project I’m sure the group cheer was heard across the city!”

“Many women in our community experience complex post traumatic stress disorder (C/PTSD) from the years of abuse and trauma they have experienced. This leaves them with low self esteem and vulnerable. This is when community services are most important – to offer connections and a way to see that you aren’t alone,” states Kathy. “When your background was rocky and uncertain, there is more to deal with. We need to ensure this doesn’t result in women closing themselves off.”

“I tell women it’s important to be in control of their drug use.  It can be hard if she’s depending on a partner for safety and basic needs. If they hear my experience and encouragement they can move toward their goals becoming a reality – you never know.”  Kathy’s happy to be connected and involved in this program. “My involvement in the drop-in allows me to share what I know and learn more. At the start of this program I was able to identify and bring a young woman back from an overdose because I had naloxone and am aware of the signs of drug overdose. “

“Now I see my role as a guide and information-provider for others. I have been able to withstand, and I have a lot to offer. The leadership that drop-in staff Monica Forrester and Lisa Terry bring to these sessions show all of us what our next steps can be. These are steps we can manage as we help each other.”

Kathy in 1960
Janice, Jess and Kathy –
Harm Reduction Outreach at Pride, 2023