“This is the way that I can help somebody else”

December 10, 2021

As an immigrant, a survivor of domestic abuse, and a formerly unhoused person, Dankwa’s journey has neither been easy nor linear. She wants to share her lived experience because “there are so many other people that nobody will ever know their story, but they are dying on the street. A lot of voices are not being heard and I’ve been through so much that keeping it to myself is not going to help.”

Dankwa came to Canada to escape an abusive relationship in New York where she felt her pleas for help were not being taken seriously enough.

“I felt like I wasn’t getting the support that I needed,” she says. “My children and I were not safe at all, so I did what I had to do to protect me and my children.”

After arriving in Ontario, Dankwa ended up at a shelter. She describes her time there as challenging, with a lack of trust between the women staying there and the shelter staff.

“The shelter is a good place in an emergency. It should be just emergency services,” she says. “I should be staying in that shelter not more than two to three weeks and then should be put in a house or apartment. We need homes. We don’t need to put so much money in the shelters. No abused women with children should stay in a shelter for more than a month because then it becomes another mental health issue to deal with in that place.”

At her shelter, Danka says she did not receive the appropriate transitional support and was instead kicked out for overstaying.

“A shelter is where you’re supposed to get the legal services, where you get all the support that you are supposed to get, but in my case, that was not there. In my case, I had to leave because I had overstayed and when I said no, I was literally kicked out and my stuff was thrown out in a plastic bag.”

After leaving the shelter, Dankwa bounced around different places.

“I was couch surfing. I will go to this person’s place for a week [then] that person’s place for a week and sleep on their couch. I’ll go take a shower here then I will go somewhere else the next day and stay there for a little bit until I get my work money then I can stay in a motel. When that money runs out, I go back on the street and try to figure out what friend will take me in for the night.”

After bouncing around for months, she finally found a one-bedroom basement apartment that she could afford.

However, her joy at finding housing for the first time since fleeing her abusive relationship was short-lived.

“What I didn’t know was that it was another nightmare that I was going to face,” she says.

“Giving money to somebody to abuse me”

Dankwa’s new landlord lived above her and had strict rules around what Dankwa could or could not do.

“She told me that when I go out, I have to come home at a certain time or I shouldn’t come in. I should stay outside,” Dankwa says. “So, when I go out and it’s past 10:00 o’clock, I have to sleep on somebody’s couch again.”

Dankwa was also not allowed to have friends over in her apartment. If someone wanted to visit her, they had to sit in her landlord’s living room while the landlord was there.

After a friend came over one day at a pre-planned time and the landlord asked her to reschedule because she wanted to go out, Dankwa had had enough.

“I didn’t know where I was gonna go, but I said to myself ‘If I have left that man in the United States and have come all the way and stayed in the shelter where I’ve been kicked out of, there is nothing else that I can’t deal with.”

Janet Dankwa participating in the Vote Housing Campaign, 2021.

And with that, Dankwa was homeless again.

“I remember Thanksgiving. It was the saddest Thanksgiving ever,” Dankwa recalls. “I was always the person cooking Thanksgiving, everybody coming to my home. I had a huge house, it was beautiful. I worked so hard for that place. And Thanksgiving came and I was homeless.”

After a couple of months, Dankwa found another basement apartment that she could afford in Peel Region; this one without a kitchen, fridge, or microwave.

The first night, she slept on the floor with no comforter. The second day, while a friend drove her to find some supplies, they were hit by another vehicle.

Being an immigrant with no permanent resident card at the time, Dankwa was too scared to go to the hospital.

“I started having anxiety attacks and depression,” she says. “When a woman is running from abuse, we should not look at the nationality or the country that they are coming from in order to provide them [with support], we should look at them as a human being. As a woman who needs help, that is it.”

Dankwa stayed in the basement apartment “hoping that the kitchen would be done,” she says. “That did not happen.”

Dankwa says she explored different avenues for help with finding suitable and stable housing, but was rebuffed at every turn, in part due to her immigration status.

“After a while, I started moving again,” Dankwa says.

“The road to finding a place has not been easy. Throughout, I encountered landlords that would like to take advantage of me in every way they can knowing my situation. But one thing that I said to myself after what I experienced with my ex-husband and what I experienced in the shelter, is that there’s things I won’t entertain anymore. I would rather be on the street and be happy than giving money to somebody to abuse me.”

“Special attention” for women’s homelessness

While Dankwa has now found more stable housing, she still fears that it could all be taken away.

“When it comes to women’s homelessness, we need more special attention,” she says.  

“I’m not saying other people don’t need special attention, but most of the time, it is women leaving abusers and a lot of them will take their children with them, so it is not as easy for women to stay in the shelter or on the streets,” she explains.

“We live in a world where we are always trying to help other people from different places, but we have women here going through abuse who don’t even have a home to stay. And sometimes people think that we have the systems in place…but the programs and the systems are not set up to actually provide adequate housing, and so the woman ends up back with the abuser or on the street.”

For Dankwa, a large part of the issue with women’s homelessness is that there is a lack of understanding by the vast majority of the population. “People get judgmental because they have not been in our shoes,” she says.

“If I can use that energy that I have, that anger, that strength, to let people know [what homeless people] are going through then somebody might listen. Somebody might read the story somewhere. Somebody might have the passion to even advocate. And this is the way that I can help somebody else.”

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