On the Edge

A couple of years ago I worked on a photo-doc­u­ment­ary pro­ject with pho­to­graph­er Barry Peterson. We inter­viewed and pho­to­graphed people who were home­less, had been home­less or were in danger of becom­ing home­less.

The stor­ies were mov­ing in a way I nev­er expec­ted. I learned that no mat­ter where or how a per­son lived, they still had hopes and dreams, just like I do. They exper­i­enced joy, sad­ness, fear. They did whatever was neces­sary to sur­vive.

Every October I post one of the stor­ies and pho­tos from that pro­ject on my blog. I do this to hon­our the people I met, to recog­nize their strength in the face of adversity and their abil­ity to find humour in the bleak­est of moments.

Below is Jessica’s story. I got an email from her last year. She’d had her oper­a­tion, was doing some volun­teer work and was dat­ing. There were still chal­lenges in her life but she was happy.

Jessica, age 45 

      Jessica had it all: a spouse, a car, a job and a house in Europe. But every time her life seemed per­fect, it fell apart. At 28, divorced and unem­ployed, a friend stuck a needle in her arm to make her feel bet­ter. That was the begin­ning of a 12-year cycle of drug addic­tion, rehab, build­ing a life and then dis­ap­pear­ing into the streets and drugs again.

As a home­less per­son Jessica has been beaten uncon­scious and urin­ated on in Victoria, wit­nessed murders in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and got­ten food pois­on­ing from dump­ster diving. She’s been pro­nounced DOA three times and, while liv­ing in a Courtenay tent city, bull­dozers flattened her tent and belong­ings. “When you’re home­less people look at you like you’re not worthy of breath­ing the same air,” she says. “But I’ve met lots of intel­li­gent, artic­u­late people on the street. Heroin and cocaine don’t dis­crim­in­ate.”

Two years ago Jessica real­ized the only way to beat her drug addic­tion was to deal with the fact that she was a female stuck in a man’s body. She’d grown up in Ontario and Victoria and was a jock in high school. But when she was 17 her moth­er dis­covered her hid­den girl clothes. After that trau­mat­ic scene, Jessica did everything she could to hide her sexu­al­ity. But 25 years later she knew she had two choices: live her life as a woman or com­mit sui­cide. A street nurse helped her obtain hor­mone ther­apy and Jessica moved to Courtenay to make a clean start. She cur­rently lives in a small base­ment room, is drug-free and eagerly await­ing her vagino­plasty. Once her trans­ition is com­plete she wants to become an esthet­i­cian.

Jessica’s grate­ful to be off the street but life’s a struggle. After rent, there’s less than $100 for gro­cer­ies and with “38D boobs and a voice like Joe Cocker,” she’s often faced with cruel and even viol­ent beha­viour when out in pub­lic. “It’s sad that people fear and ridicule trans­gendered people,” she says. “It’s some­thing that hap­pens at birth, not a mat­ter of choice. I’m happy now; I wish people could accept that.”

 

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