As It Happens

'People are good': Homeless Nova Scotian overwhelmed by support after paper shares her story

For months, Joni Rutledge kept it a secret from most people that she was living in her car. But she broke her silence publicly when Chronicle Herald columnist John DeMont interviewed her inside her blue 2010 Pontiac G5 sedan.

Joni Rutledge was living in her car after losing three of her toes, her job and her apartment

Joni Rutledge says her life changed dramatically when The Chronicle Herald published a story about her struggle to find housing in Dartmouth, N.S. (Anne Goguen)


For months, Joni Rutledge kept it a secret from most people that she was living in her car. 

The 62-year-old Dartmouth, N.S., woman had three of her toes amputated due to complications from diabetes, which caused her to lose her job and her apartment earlier this year. 

"I was ashamed that I was in that situation and I didn't share it with too many people," Rutledge told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "Plus, you know, friends would have been really worried and really upset, and I didn't want to do that to them."

But she broke her silence publicly earlier this month when Chronicle Herald columnist John DeMont interviewed in her her 2010 Pontiac G5 sedan. Since the local paper published her story on Dec. 5, she says she's been overwhelmed with support from friends and strangers alike.

"Don't tell me that local journalism doesn't matter," DeMont wrote in a followup column.

It's because of that story that she was able to speak to As It Happens not from her car, but a hotel room. The provincial Department of Community Services footed the bill at first. When government funding ran out, she says an anonymous Good Samaritan took over the payments. 

"A lot of people were really upset. I mean, they weren't raging or throwing a tantrum, but they were really angry that I was in this position and I was unable to get help," Rutledge said. "People are good — really good."

'I was just running like a gerbil in a cage'

Rutledge's troubles began in late 2018, when she had to have her toes removed. The surgery meant that she had to take a leave of absence from her job at a call centre. 

Her bills added up and she fell behind on the rent. 

"I couldn't catch up with rent, or couldn't catch up with anything, and I was just running like a gerbil in a cage," she said. 

On June 30, she was evicted. 

At first, she stayed in a house that her brother-in-law had sold before the new owners moved in. Because of her foot, she says the move was arduous, and she had to take more time off work.

Ten days after getting kicked out of her apartment, she lost her job because of absenteeism. 

"I knew the rules, and I signed the papers," she said.

Things quickly spiralled from there. Within a few weeks, she was living in her car.  At night, she'd camp out in a Walmart parking lot. When she had to use the bathroom, she'd drive a kilometre to a gas station. 

She couldn't get employment insurance because she was fired. 

'I'm a single mom and I want you to have this'

When her story came out, Rutledge says she heard from strangers, colleagues, former classmates and childhood friends. 

Her local MLA Barbara Adams got in touch, and the provincial Department of Community Services put her up temporarily in the Dartmouth Travelodge. That cost has since been taken over by an anonymous donor. 

Evan Langford, a former colleague, started a Go Fund Me page for her called "Help Joni Rutledge." It had raised $8,127 so far. 

But Rutledge says it's the small things that have made the biggest difference — the man who brought her a hot cup of chicken soup; the elderly lady who hand-knitted her a hat and scarf; and the young woman who handed her $5 and said, "I'm sorry it can't be more, but I'm a single mom and I want you to have this."

"I thought, it doesn't matter the donation, it's how much it means to the person giving it and to the person receiving," Rutledge said. "It was a beautiful thing."

An uncertain future

Still, Rutledge's future is uncertain. She can't rely on the kindness of strangers forever.

She's now on a priority list for seniors' housing. But she says the social services system in Nova Scotia has been challenging to deal with. 

"I get upset when I speak about Community Services. But I understand they have ... rules they need to follow as well. It's been a system that has had so many bandages and, you know, cracks filled and stuff like that, it's not a system anymore. It needs to be started from the ground up," she said.

"How a government or country treats the people says a lot about the country, and certainly the people treat the government a lot better than the government treats the people. So, you know, it's time to get together on the priorities and set things right."

In the meantime, Rutledge says what she wants people to understand about homelessness is that it can happen to anyone. 

"The feeling of shame, of I'm a loser, you know — here I am at this age where I should have, you know, a little bit of pension, looking at retirement in a few years and that, and here I am living out of a car," she said.

"I can't say enough about the people, both through this situation and always, people come together. You know, they might be in a hurry and they might not smile at you in public. They got 30 things on their mind and that. But, you know, when you say, 'Hey, we have this issue, can you help?' people always come forward."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.