Longtime Vancouver homeless advocate Karen O'Shannacery is retiring after 43 years serving Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
O'Shanncery served as executive director of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, an organization that prides itself on helping people help themselves with finding a home as the first step to self sufficiency.
The society provides a wide spectrum of housing services from providing homes to 591 people and transitional housing to 166 people. It also provides housing for 181 people through shelters, and another 77 beds through the extreme weather shelter program.
Today, the day she retires, O'Shannacery reveals how her time as a teenager living on the streets has guided her career..
The following is a condensed and edited version of O'Shannacery's interview with the CBC's Elaine Chau.
Q: Where did you live on the streets of Vancouver?
A: When I first hit the streets, it was West 4th that I ended up. That's not quite true, because I couch surfed amongst friends out in Richmond, and when I burned my bridges there, I ended up on the streets here on West 4th.
I spent probably a good year coping on the streets of West 4th. [in 1964-65] 4th Avenue means a lot to me because this is where people on the street helped keep me on the straight and narrow. It’s very easy when you’re on the streets, to get sucked in to a lot of drugs. Trading sex for accommodation. Trying to find somebody who can look after you in order to survive.
I was one of those people who desperately wanted, needed to be able to look after myself. I ended up getting into drugs in a fairly hard way…and friends that were on the street figured that I needed something better than that. And so they took care of me.
They locked me in a house, in a room, and didn’t let me out until I was clean of drugs — at the ripe old age of 15-and-a-half.
Q: How did you make money?
A: With retirement, I’m being more forthright about my past. The way I made money was by selling drugs. That gave me enough income to be able to pay rent, and buy food, and so I was able to give a place to sleep for a whole lot of other people. I turned it into a crash pad.
Q: How did that affect your work at Lookout?
A: It informed everything about me. Because, here I was, a very young child, right? I was 14 when I hit the streets. Very vulnerable, and I was getting angrier. Why should I have to do this? Why should anyone have to live this way? Why wasn't there services for me?
Q: When you talk about the formative principles…that started here…what are they?
A: For one thing, that anybody in need ought to have shelter. Shelter is a right. Housing should be a right. It should be barrier-free. It shouldn’t be based on the fact that you have no money.
I started out with this belief, that everybody should have a right to be treated respectfully. The principle of people who are homeless know what they need, right? They need people to help them access what they need. Again, respecting that people who are homeless are like everybody else.
They do know what their issues are, and what is going to make a difference, but most of the time that isn’t recognized.
Q: What will you do after you retire?
A: You can take the girl out of the street, but you can't take the street out of the girl. I'm still going to do something. What? I'm going to take time to figure out, for the cause, and for the homeless.