British Columbia

'A mother should never ever have to be put in this position': Chilliwack mom on brink of homelessness

Michelle Paquette cares for five children, two of them with disabilities. She can't afford to pay rent for her Chilliwack home. She says there's a lack of housing options for people like her.

Michelle Paquette cares for 5 children; 2 have disabilities

Michelle Paquette, a single mother caring for five children, has struggled to pay her rent. Two of her children are disabled. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Michelle Paquette nearly lost her baby daughter Eleanor once — and she's trying her hardest not to lose her again.

Last summer, Paquette found the infant lying lifeless inside her crib in the middle of the night, just weeks after she was born. The incident was later diagnosed as a case of sudden infant death syndrome.

"My attempts at giving her CPR didn't work," Paquette told CBC News from her home in Chilliwack. "I had to call on my son Lucas to help... and he saved her life."

Though Eleanor survived, the baby, now just over six months old, suffered severe brain damage. She's partially blind and has been diagnosed with epilepsy and cerebral palsy. Paquette says she spends many of her days travelling to medical appointments across the region.

But she has four other kids to care for, and the family is in dire financial straits. Paquette couldn't afford to pay the December rent on her three-bedroom apartment as she grapples with health, food and living costs.

Poverty advocates say Paquette's situation has become all too common in the Fraser Valley and beyond, as the unaffordability crisis hits families across the province.

Eleanor Paquette has undergone rounds of medical treatment since her sudden infant death syndrome episode. (Submitted by Michelle Paquette)

"As the cost of living increases, the cost of housing, the cost of child care — particularly for children with special needs — people are falling into poverty," said Helesia Luke, a spokesperson with the poverty advocacy group First Call B.C.

A recent provincial report card found that one in five children in B.C. are in poverty.

"This is not a problem exclusive to the metro region at all," said Luke, "As people leave those urban centres to get more affordable housing, housing prices in those [other] areas go up as well."

Paquette hopes her family will get accepted into an affordable home provided by B.C. Housing. But after sitting on the provincial registry for more than two years, she worries they will end up on the street.

"It's very difficult. A mother should never ever have to be put in this position — to really be faced to look at paying expenses and bills, or paying your rent," she said. "It's really hard."

Six-month old Eleanor suffered severe brain damage after suddenly losing consciousness just weeks after she was born. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

On the move

Paquette is a former support worker for vulnerable women, now off work and collecting a monthly disability payment.

The family moved to Metro Vancouver from Cranbrook, B.C. in 2017, where they lived in subsidized housing. Leaving that behind was a tough decision for Paquette, but she felt it was necessary.

Her six-year-old son Boden has autism and she said there are more health services available for him in B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

"We left B.C. Housing for market rental — and we've just been trying to survive ever since," she said.

Since then, she's had three more kids. Eleanor and her twin brother, Max, were born in June. The family of six has since settled in Chilliwack.

Michelle Paquette holds her twins, Eleanor and Max, who were born in June. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Treating both Boden and Eleanor's disabilities on a limited income has been a challenge. Paquette has to make weekly trips to Vancouver for medical services, often for days at a time. The costs of food, fuel, accommodations, and medications have piled up.

"I'm just overblown with the amount of appointments we have make," she said. "We see a pediatrician once a month, a neurologist once a month, physiotherapy, occupational therapy. We see a dietitian, we see an ophthalmologist... It's put us into a financial crisis."

Paquette asked to be issued an eviction notice prior to the day before her rent was due, knowing she couldn't afford it.

The document allows her to apply for a $700 crisis supplement from the Ministry of Children and Family Development. She's hopeful she can put the dollars toward a delayed rent payment.

The Paquette family lives in a Chillwack townhome, and are hopeful they will get into a home subsidized by B.C. Housing. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

'A miracle'

Paquette has been working closely with housing advocates at the Salvation Army. Captain Matt Kean said the organization has been working to find housing options for her.

B.C. Housing would not comment on the circumstances due to confidentiality, but noted there are more than 20,000 people on its registry whose needs are assessed on a case-by-case basis. The agency offers subsidized units to families — but advocates say they can be difficult to access.

Viveca Ellis, a community organizer for the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, said single mothers with more than three children struggle to find adequate housing in Metro Vancouver and across the province.

"They end up waiting on the affordable housing lists for a very long time, because there is not enough large family stock in British Columbia."

It's a future that feels fragile, and uncertain. But Paquette draws inspiration from her daughter.

"This is all for her. It is absolutely all for her," she said.

"Life is just too short, and when you have such a miracle such as her, you have to cherish every moment. I just look at her, and I'm just extremely blessed," she said.