WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
For the first time in 15 years, Josephine Harper won’t be spending winter struggling to stay warm inside a crowded Winnipeg bus shelter.
She asked for help, got sober and got a home of her own — and now she wants people living in bus shelters to know she’s there to help them, just as someone was for her.
“We’re not bad people just because we’re homeless,” Harper said.
“And all you see is drunks. That’s not why we’re drinking — just for the hell of it or because we think it’s fun,” she said.
“We have issues that most of us can’t handle, or don’t know how to handle. We’re scared to reach out because of being abandoned.”
Harper, 33, who is Oji-Cree and originally from Red Sucker Lake First Nation in northeastern Manitoba, used to stay in bus shelters along Portage Avenue and in Osborne Village, huddled next to others in the warmest shack she could find, sometimes in temperatures approaching –40 C.
“We would share amongst each other, lie right beside each other, even if it’s a stranger. But we did take care of each other. We made sure that none of us were freezing,” she said, during a late September interview with CBC at a women’s transitional home.
She would drink until she got “numb, to not feel the hopelessness of being homeless,” she said.
“I honestly believed that nobody cared, or would look at us like, ‘Oh, there they are again. Just a bunch of hopeless people.’
“But really, we have a story behind why we’re homeless.”
A repeating cycle
Harper said when she was born, her mom wasn’t able to care for her, so she gave her to someone else.
“It almost feels like I’ve been homeless from the beginning,” said Harper.
Her adoptive parents did the best they could, she said, but they had been impacted by residential schools, and there was a lot of alcohol in the home. She started drinking at age 13 and left her First Nation when she turned 18.
She was “abused in all ways — sexually, mentally, physically, emotionally,” she said. “Growing up, that’s all I knew.”
In Winnipeg, she developed a reputation for lashing out at others while under the influence.
“A lot of shelters didn’t even want me around,” she said.
She would lash out, break the shelters’ rules, go to jail and get bail. Then the cycle would repeat, up to 20 times in one year, she said.
“It became a part of my life. In order for me to find what I thought was stability, to feel safe … sometimes I would do things on purpose just to go back [to jail].”
Once out, she’d return to the bus shelters.
In the shelters, everyone would take turns staying awake to make sure the others didn’t freeze, have things stolen or get attacked. Cellphones — a way to call for help — were the most valuable possessions, Harper said.
“A lot of people choose bus shelters because … there’s rules in these [homeless] shelters,” such as requirements to be sober, she said.
“We don’t worry about the next day. Just that day. So that’s why we pick [bus] shelters. That’s the only option that we have.”
She said people in bus shelters share the experiences of hopelessness, trying to escape their past, and surviving together.
“I mean, I’ve always loved people,” said Harper.
“That love grew more from experiencing this homelessness with these people — not only that, but for all the people that we lost.”
Life and death in bus shelters
During the winter of 2020-21, she was staying mainly at the bus shelter in front of Portage Place, which saw a machete attack on two people, a fire and the death of a woman within the span of a few weeks.
Shortly before the woman’s death in February 2021, Harper and a friend, who has also since died, had posted a video to Facebook showing what it’s like to be homeless and spending freezing nights in the bus shelters.
The woman who died in February fell asleep after using drugs, using Harper’s leg as a pillow, she said. When she didn’t wake up, Harper tried to revive her, but had no phone to call for help.
Eventually the woman was taken to hospital. A police officer told Harper the next day she didn’t make it.
“It never leaves you,” said Harper, wiping away tears.
CBC first started visiting that Portage Avenue bus shelter shortly after the woman’s death, returning several times over a period of many weeks. People staying there identified Josephine Harper, who was well known among the street community, as the person who had tried to save the woman.
Eventually, CBC made contact with Harper, but she didn’t want to talk then.
A year later, she reached out, saying she wanted to tell her story to help other homeless people.
Winter “is the most vulnerable time of the year,” said Harper.
“It’s cold. There’s limited supplies. A lot of people are in need of blankets.
“We need more people that care and show compassion. We need to reach out to them, and not the other way around.”
'A miraculous turnaround'
Harper first met Fedja Redzepovic — the manager of housing at Wahbung Abinoonjiiag, a domestic violence prevention centre in Winnipeg — about five years ago.
She was out on bail from the Women’s Correctional Centre thanks to the efforts of her lawyer, Brett Gladstone — “one of the first … [people] that has not given up on me, that had shown me hope,” said Harper.
Redzepovic said Harper’s lawyer was desperate for an agency that would support her once she was released from jail, because no other agencies wanted to.
“She was a woman who was out of options,” he said.
“Every single time she was released, I’d try working with her while she was in the community,” said Redzepovic, but she’d end up being arrested again.
“It was basically a vicious cycle for many, many months and … many, many years.”
Redzepovic supported her however he could — getting her into a women’s shelter in Portage la Prairie, or helping her get income assistance, clothing, food and bus tickets.
“I thought he was bogus,” said Harper. “A lot of these places are only in it for the money, not really caring for people like me.”
But over time, the two became friends and developed trust. Harper said even though she wasn’t ready to change her lifestyle, she saw there was nothing she could do or say that would push Redzepovic away.
“It gives you a peace of mind — like you’re not alone,” she said.
Redzepovic said he was just doing his job and is grateful to have gained a friend whom he now considers family. Harper did the “heavy lifting,” he said.
“Josephine made nothing short of a miraculous turnaround.”
Time for a change
That turnaround came after an experience in summer of 2021 that convinced her it was time to try to save her own life.
Harper suffered severe burns in a homeless encampment fire in Osborne Village in July 2021. Shortly after, she was hospitalized for liver cirrhosis from drinking hand sanitizer, made worse by taking Tylenol for the burns.
That’s when she decided she needed to live, so that she could help other homeless people.
She went to detox, then alcohol addiction treatment for a month, then moved to a women’s transitional home.
She’s been sober for eight months and is about to move into an apartment of her own.
Harper knows the abandonment many homeless people feel, which is why she plans on becoming a support worker like Redzepovic.
“He gave me hope. He gave me strength. He’s the reason why I am sober today,” she said.
She’s also working to raise money for people who are homeless, and hopes people support Wahbung Abinoonjiiag.
As she walks down Portage Avenue, people she used to survive winters with, holed up in bus shelters, greet her by name.
She says hi back and stays to chat.
“I give them money and stuff when I walk by when I see someone I know,” she said. “It’s just the thought that counts.”
When people hear why a news crew is following her around, one man remarks, “Good for her.”
People who are homeless need “a lot of loving care,” said Harper, but most people just walk by them.
“They don’t even stop — you know, just to talk to them … hear our story,” she said.
“I won’t give up on them. I will go to them. I will stand beside them as long as it takes.
“I honestly do believe … they can make it.”
Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat.