'Don't look down on us': Calgary woman shares story of homelessness

Lisa Grigolato is an environmental engineer and a single mom — she's also currently living on the streets. She says that experiencing homelessness has impacted the way others treat her.

Not all people end up on the streets for the same reasons, says Lisa Grigolato

Lisa Grigolato says the statues of the Famous Five have inspired her to stand up and fight for other women experiencing homelessness. (Jo Horwood/CBC)

Lisa Grigolato stands in the middle of the Famous Five with a coffee cup in her hand.

The ring of statues in downtown Calgary pay homage to the group that fought for women to be recognized as persons in Canada.

Grigolato clears their nameplates with her weathered Doc Martens, at times reaching down to wipe the cold metal with her bare hands. 

"I just think, if they can fight that hard for us women, then I need to stand up and fight for us homeless women."

The 55-year-old dusts snow from the bronze figures in what she calls a show of respect. 

It's something she wishes she received more often from people in the city. 

"Don't look down on us. I mean, I'm an environmental engineer, I'm a single mom," Grigolato said. 

"We're treated like we have the plague, that's how I feel, that people are leery of us simply because we are homeless, and I don't think that that's fair." 

The beginning 

Grigolato says her life on the streets began with financial problems. 

She lost her condo last June. 

That experience left her spiraling, she says, and her battle with depression became more challenging. 

As her mental health crumbled, so did her support system. 

"I've lost everything. I've lost a healthy relationship with my son, with my parents at the time. Depression is really debilitating," Grigolato said.

"I'm not an abuser of substance. I'm an abuser of my own well-being because of my depression." 

Her adult son lives in Banff, but she doesn't see him much these days. 

She says she wants to protect him, "because he has depression as well, and I sure don't want him to end up where I've ended up." 

Ongoing mental health conditions are listed as a complex barrier for 85 per cent of people seeking housing on the Calgary Homeless Foundation's website. 

Shelter sleeping 

When CBC News first met Grigolato in early January, she was staying at the Calgary Drop-In Centre. 

Since then, she has spent several days at the Mustard Seed, before landing at Alpha House Calgary. 

When she sleeps at shelters, she says she gets there early so that she can wake up sooner than most. She tries to avoid others who might be using alcohol or substances. 

She spends her days riding the CTrain, hunting for basic conveniences like a place to charge her phone.

"I leave early in the morning and jump on the train and surf 'til seven or eight when it warms up a little bit," Grigolato explains.

"Then I've got to look for a bathroom, and that can sometimes take a while to find someplace that I can actually use the bathroom and put my day face on." 

Tasks like picking up a food hamper can take an entire day. 

Trying to wash her laundry is another challenge. 

"I go to my friend's place and ask for mercy or I get a hotel room and do it all in the bathtub," said Grigolato. 

Grigolato notes that as a woman, it's especially difficult to stay hygienic without access to public bathrooms. 

The Calgary Homeless Foundation says up to a third of people experiencing homelessness in the city are women.

'We're just lost'

Despite the challenges of homelessness, Grigolato says that ending the experience comes down to the person living it wanting change. 

"You have to want life away from mere substances and really give life an honest go again. And however that looks for the individual is up to them and when they're ready," Grigolato said emotionally. 

Tears fill her eyes as she reflects on how experiencing homelessness has impacted the way others treat her. 

"But don't you think that all of us are just abusers of alcohol or drugs or whatever, because we're not, we're not all like that. We're just lost." 

Grigolato hopes to one day write a book about her encounters, to advocate on the behalf of people still faced with housing instability. 

For now, she gains fortitude from her role models in bronze, the circle of women standing strong in the middle of the city's downtown core, and focuses on getting through the challenges that each day brings.