Woman walking down the street

Photography by Tanja-Tiziana

I used to be homeless. Now I help others rebuild their lives

Women who’ve lost almost everything can learn to harness their own strength. Here’s how I did it

Ihad a reasonably normal childhood, until my paternal grandmother died within a few weeks of learning she had cancer. I was 16 years old at the time and living with my father and his brother. Wracked with grief after his mother’s death, my uncle went from depressed to enraged and would turn his violence towards me. At that point, I became your typical runaway. I would leave when things got bad at home, and then I’d run right back when everything got bad outside.

After my uncle threatened to kill me a second time, I called an abuse hotline. The woman I spoke with didn’t just listen to my distress—she found me a safe place to stay. I left for the YWCA’s Stop 86 youth shelter with nothing but the clothes on my back, a subway ticket in one hand and an address in another.

By the time I got to the shelter, the only question I had was: Do I live or do I die? I made a list of pros and cons for living, and what kept me alive was the desire to never see another woman go through what I went through. The day I decided to live was the day I decided that even though I’d dropped out of high school, I would become that successful person who I wanted to visit my shelter and say, “We can find a way out of this together. This isn’t a dead end.”

Driven by the promise I made that day to help other women escape homelessness and violence, I climbed the corporate ladder, even though I never finished high school. My autism helped me achieve my success. Because I couldn’t read faces, I would go for jobs I wasn’t qualified for, and I wouldn’t realize that they were politely telling me to go jump in the lake, so I would just keep trying. That’s how I got a job in sales at a technology company. I kept my past to myself, because I was afraid that my colleagues might use my story of homelessness against me, to get my territory. But every year, I would ask myself, “Am I successful enough yet to reveal my secret?” Fifteen years after becoming homeless, at the point when I was earning $270,000 a year, I decided to share my story. The next step was creating a coaching program, Up With Women, so I could stay true to my promise.

Woman facing away from the camera

A few months before I founded my charity, the company I worked for had paid for a professional coach for me, to help me advance my career. After working with my coach, I remember thinking, “Wow, I could have used this kind of help years ago.”

When you’re rebuilding after homelessness you need all the help you can get. Unexplained gaps in your resumé can be a barrier to creating a new life, but the biggest roadblock is your own belief that you are a lesser person, because you were once homeless.

Grappling with the aftermath of all that you’ve been through can also pull you under water, if you don’t know what to do with your grief and pain. When you experience trauma, it’s like there’s a dissonance that happens. One of my most powerful memories from my time in the shelter was how, after leaving each morning, I’d go to the Royal Conservatory of Music. I would sit in the hallway and listen to the students, each practising their own song. All of these different rhythms and sounds would seep through the cracks of the doors and coalesce in the hallway and reflect off walls. That would sound like noise to most people, but to me it was all music. That’s how I learned to believe in beauty again.

Woman smiling into the camera

Once violence has happened to you, you can’t just erase the memory. But you also can’t let it destroy who you think you are. Because we’re all perfect—and we’re just in the process of becoming more perfect. I see coaching as a process that helps people hear music in themselves, even if things seem chaotic, and then draw their map to becoming their ideal self.

We launched Up With Women in 2010 with 10 coaches. We offered highly personalized services to support our clients’ career development, entrepreneurship skills and emotional growth. The YWCA supplied most of our clients that first year. The women needed to have reached a certain level of healing and stability so they could focus on a program like this, and the YWCA does a lot of the groundwork by taking them out of crisis.

Coaching is all about the ideal self. Instead of thinking about the holes in your life, you think about where you want to go. Studies show that doing so engages your parasympathetic nervous system, and the part of the brain that lights up is the part that is responsible for new ideas, ambition, creative problem solving and spotting new opportunities. It took me almost 10 years just to get back to my starting line after homelessness, so it brings me a great deal of satisfaction to see the recently homeless and at-risk women we work with rebuild their lives so much faster, with the help of their coaches.

Woman pointing to the display behind her

One of our first clients was Esther, a refugee from Uganda. When I gave my presentation at the YWCA, she sat in the front row with her arms crossed. She was skeptical about the program, because she just couldn’t see that the type of future I was describing was possible for her. She actually shook my confidence a bit, though I appreciated her directness. Esther had gone through nursing school and graduated with honours while living in a shelter, but she couldn’t find work. After she signed on as an Up With Women client, her coach helped her come up with a plan. Then once she’d hit the milestone of getting a job, the coach helped her focus on her dream of starting her own financial services business. Esther had to build confidence gradually to be able to even picture that goal. A year later, between her salary and revenue from her company, she was earning $5,000 a month.

The early days for Up With Women were tough. Our clients were really successful, but I wasn’t even paying myself. Around four years in, I’d quit my full-time job to focus on the charity. I was living on sardines and beans, and I was telling them, “You can do it, you can exit poverty!” Meanwhile, I had built up credit card debt and even gone into personal bankruptcy to save the program.

We desperately needed to attract funders, so I figured I should do something attention-grabbing that showed how strong ordinary women were when they set their mind to achieving a big goal. In December 2013, on my 42nd birthday, I hauled a 17,000-pound transport truck a distance of just over 30 metres. I set a new Guinness World Record that day, for the heaviest vehicle pulled 100 feet by a woman, and I had the chance to share my story on TV and to talk about my charity and how it helped women. After that, the funding we needed came in, and we could move forward with our work without me ending up homeless again.

Woman facing the camera

Six years on we’ve gone national, and we have more than 140 coaches supporting women on their journey. The results are powerful. Two-thirds of our clients end up getting a job or starting their own business within a year. Thirty-eight percent of the women we work with have terminated their social assistance within six to 12 months. Twenty-two percent end up earning more than $40,000 a year.

We’ve had women going from sex work, abuse, poverty and addiction to getting a degree in law or medicine and going on to a big career, a stable living situation and financial freedom. Esther, one of our first clients—and our biggest skeptic, before she experienced coaching firsthand—is today one of our strongest advocates and a past member of our board of directors. The women we work with are not just changing their income—they’re changing their lives.

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