Manitoba·First Person

Why I ended up broke, homeless and fighting for survival

When Lisa Wiebe tells people she was once homeless, the question she's most often asked is "why?" she writes. "I put my faith and trust in a system that is so broken, it failed me, even though it was designed to help low-income and poverty-stricken individuals and families," she says.

A Steinbach, Man., mother recalls her step-by-step descent into poverty — and how social safety nets failed

Close-up of a woman's face, with her hand holding up sunglasses over her blonde hair.
Growing up, 'homelessness was never a thought,' recalls Lisa Wiebe. (Lisa Wiebe)

This First Person column is the experience of Lisa Wiebe, a rural Manitoba mother who took photos to document her journey into homelessness. This is Part 1 in her First Person series about her experience. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

When I tell people I was once homeless, the question that I get asked most often is why. Why was I homeless? 

As if the answer is black and white and easily understandable. 

The answer is not understandable, but it's true. 

I put my faith and trust in a system that is so broken, it failed me, even though it was designed to help low-income and poverty-stricken individuals and families. 

It felt like the government supports that should have aided me in finding solutions to my poverty instead waged a battle to keep my benefits from me — all while directing me to go to any faith-based or not-for-profit organization and receive help there instead.

I do not come from a low income background. 

My parents stayed together until they passed away, and our household was always secure. My childhood had no fear of poverty. In fact, I was Daddy's little princess and I was extremely spoiled. 

Homelessness was never a thought and I spent a good portion of my adult life living with my domestic partner and our blended family in a big house we rented just outside of Steinbach, Man.

I worked part time at a job I loved, my partner worked full time.

Close-up of a woman's reddened hand covering a worn-out faded green camouflage patterned tote bag, while sitting on an asphalt street.
Wiebe ended up on the streets of Steinbach after she could no longer afford to pay rent. 'I was traumatized, emotionally exhausted and mentally broken,' she says. (Lisa Wiebe)

All appeared well on the outside, but on the inside it was a chaotic, abusive nightmare. My partner was physically and mentally abusive toward my oldest son and I, and it took the better part of seven years to actually leave the situation. (It didn't help that nobody really believed my partner was the abusive type.)

When I did finally manage to end the abusive relationship, I was able to get onto employment income assistance (EIA)  and start life fresh for my children and me. 

The rent went up and my fragile house of cards crumbled.- Lisa Wiebe

But in the midst of this, my oldest son was struck by a car in a hit and run. Luckily, he only had a broken collarbone and some bruising. Paramedics administered two shots of fentanyl in the ambulance, and warned me as I arrived at the ER that he may end up addicted to hard drugs. 

They were right. Not even six months later, I found myself begging his school teachers and counsellors to help my son get help for addiction. He had just started Grade 9 and was only 14 years old.

The money ran low trying to support my family — including a son with with a severe addiction that made him angry and violent — and with not a dime of child support.

Eviction notice

I was, it felt like, not the kind of tenant who appealed to my landlord.

She began letting herself into my home at all hours of the day and night without notice, to try to catch me doing something against the rules. For months, I was threatened with eviction for a supposedly unpaid water bill (when in fact, my EIA benefits paid it), allegations of illegal drug activity (I was innocent) and even the esthetic appeal of the yard. 

Black and white wide shot of a reflection of a woman standing and holding a phone up a the window and taking a photo of herself.
Wiebe took photos of herself to document her descent into poverty, after she first became homeless in Steinbach. (Lisa Wiebe)

In late October, 2018, my EIA worker emailed me to ask where I was living; she'd received a call from my landlord stating that I'd moved out (I hadn't) and that they would not require the rent for November. 

A few days later, I was served with an eviction notice.

But just as I was preparing to move to our new apartment, the new landlord backed out at the last minute. My son and I had absolutely nowhere to go and nowhere to store our belongings.

I was traumatized, emotionally exhausted and mentally broken.

MY EIA worker agreed to pay for a cheap room at a motel in my community until the end of the month. She cautioned that if she did not receive a new rental agreement from me by then, she would not be able to issue me any benefits at all. 

What's more, she told me that if I had not found housing by then, I would have no choice but to go to a shelter in Winnipeg. According to her, there would be more resources for my addicted son and it would be a better place for us. 

Basically, I had 10 days to find shelter or end up on the street in December, with my 16-year-old son and absolutely no money to survive.

Close up of a paved street at dark, and the dark reflection of a woman walking away from the camera to the right of two bright yellow centre lines.
With nowhere else to go, Wiebe made the journey to Winnipeg in search of homeless shelters. 'I was officially out on the streets.' (Lisa Wiebe)

I found one place — almost 15 kilometres out of town, in the middle of nowhere. I didn't own a car. Rent ate up most of my money, with little left for food. After three months, the rent went up and my fragile house of cards crumbled.

I was officially out on the streets. And with nowhere else to go, I took my EIA worker's advice and headed to the big city.

It is in Winnipeg that I learned the harsh, cold reality of what homelessness truly is.

Life on the streets

5 months ago
Duration 3:36
Lisa Wiebe shares her story and the photos she took of living homeless in Steinbach and Winnipeg.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Lisa Wiebe

Freelance contributor

Lisa Wiebe is a mother, anti-poverty advocate and amateur photographer who now lives in Crystal City, Man.