photos: Hilary Marks, with Victoria's Speakers Bureau. Photo submitted.

Putting a face to homelessness

Heartbeats: Connecting through storytelling and lived experience, Victoria’s Speakers Bureau is ready to be heard

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Think of the people you see living on the street every day. Who are they? Where are they from? What are their stories? What could they tell you about their lives and experiences if you asked?

In many cases, the stigmatization of homelessness is an insurmountable barrier for conversation, cutting people off from one another and leaving countless stories untold. But for the past few years, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness has worked to change that.

Established in 2013, the Speakers Bureau is a group of individuals who have experienced homelessness, and now offer their stories for those who want to listen. Through the coalition, interested parties can arrange for bureau members to speak at events in which they touch on a range of issues, including mental health, addictions, and domestic violence, as well as their personal successes.

In doing so, speakers are able to accomplish what bureau member Hilary Marks says is essential in addressing the stigma around homelessness: building a connection between those who live on the street and those who do not.

“That’s all [people listening] really need,” says Marks. “A connection.”

Shannon Whissell, coalition community development manager, says the bureau creates a broader understanding of homelessness for those who don’t experience it themselves. “It changes for [listeners] who that person is that they walk by on the street; they see a potential there that they may not have otherwise seen.”

A story worth telling
Marks has been a member of the speakers bureau since it was first established, but was already involved with the coalition before then. “I got connected through one of their social inclusion coordinators, because they’ve known my work as an advocate in the community, and as a big voice of inclusion,” she says.

The bureau, Marks says, came out of a need for a more personal approach to the coalition’s advocacy. “The executive directors at the time were doing lots of federal and provincial advertising regarding homelessness,” she says. “We did postcard kind of advertising, and it just ... it came to be that we need a face.”

Each bureau member undergoes professional media training, which involves watching video recordings of them speaking. “It was so different for me to put myself out there and get out of the box and watch myself and listen to myself,” Marks says.

Thanks to that training, Marks says she’s able to tell her story objectively, “without being triggered or without attaching myself to the story of my homelessness.”

A coalition staff members is always in attendance should something happen, like an audience member asking an inappropriate question, for example.

A survivor of 12 years on the street, Marks now lives in low-income housing.

“I’m 58 years young, and I’ve been housed since I got pregnant with my daughter at the age of 34,” she says.

Once she had the stability of a home, Marks says she was able to properly address health issues like her drug addiction, and find steady employment.

“Hilary’s story is a really great example of housing first,” Whissell notes, ‘housing first’ being a concept centred on the idea that once people are housed, they have a stable base from which to take care of the other issues in their lives.

When Marks speaks, her topics of interest include addictions, the sex trade, and PTSD—all of which have a place in her story. “It’s part of who I am,” she says. “It’s part of my roughness. It’s part of my edges, it’s part of…” She pauses. “You can take me off the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of me.”

Healing through speaking
Marks has spoken with groups of all ages, including college and university students, who she says will often come up to her around town to tell her about initiatives they’ve undertaken since she spoke with them.

“I can’t remember every face, but they remember mine,” Marks says with a laugh.

The most priceless events for Marks, however, are when she gets to speak at schools.

“Kids write letters after to tell you their experience of hearing you speak, and it brings tears to my eyes every time, because there’s always one or two kids in the class that are homeless, and nobody knows because they’re too embarrassed to tell people,” Marks says. “They’re living in their car, and it breaks my heart.”

That makes the bureau’s job all the more important because it ensures that people hear stories of lived experiences and see that positive change can happen.

“It’s so cool that it’s getting out there, that we have a chance to go talk to these kids and be honest enough and be real, and say, ‘It’s not your fault; it’s a structural issue; it’s a systems issue,” Marks says.

And to tell her story helps Marks as well. “It’s empowering because itshealing,” she says of her work with the bureau. “It’s empowering because I get to tell it freely, and it’s my story.”

“I don’t regret it,” Marks says of her life on the street. “There’s nothing I can change at this point, so it’s empowering just to know that I lived through it all, and that I have the guts to open my mouth and tell people about it and say, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I lived.’”

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