After years of homelessness, Nikki Renaud recently received the keys to her new home, thanks in part of a YWCA housing program for vulnerable women.
Renaud, a 40-year-old Indigenous woman from Kapuskasing, Ont., who is also recovering from years of heavy drinking, says she got close to the brink of death last year.
The mother of five, whose children were all taken from her, said her apartment unit, in a mid-rise building on Charles Street, close to Ryerson University, will help her rebuild her life and family connections.
“I can’t wait to start this new journey,” Renaud told CBC News. “I got my keys, so it actually feels real. I’m getting all my stuff in to make it a home.”
Standing at a window in her new apartment, Renaud looks out at a broken down house.
“There is a porch on there. I used to sleep on that porch, I used to sleep in the park,” she said.
“I’m viewing the park from my new home, so it’s awesome … It’s a bit overwhelming but I’m happy.”
She recalled that there were a couple of times when construction workers would dump water on her, her boyfriend and her dog while they were sleeping — just one of the indignities she’s suffered living on the streets for much of her life since her adoptive parents told her to leave their Hearst, Ont. home when she was 16.
But Sanctuary, a local drop-in for people experiencing homelessness, later invited them to pitch their tent against the walls of the church.
In April last year, Renaud was among dozens of people the city moved into furnished apartment buildings as part of its response to protect the vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis.
Life on the streets had become even more difficult for those without homes during the pandemic. Physical distancing rules forced many drop-in centres and food banks to close or only offer food to go.
“It seems like [the pandemic] moved things along faster. I think the pandemic had a big influence on my housing situation,” Renaud said.
One drink away from dying
It’s been a long, arduous journey for Renaud, who has been on and off the streets for about 10 years.
For the last three of those years, she has been living continuously on the streets.
During that time, she lost some of her close friends, and said she got a wake-up call last October.
“The last couple years [I lost] friends and stuff — a lot of homeless people, overdoses and just violence on the streets,” Renaud said.
“I’ve lost a lot of loyal friends. A couple of my good friends passed away from alcoholism and that’s why I stopped, because they were told if they didn’t stop drinking that they wouldn’t make it.
“In October when I ended up in the hospital, they told me that one drink could make that difference for me … I was throwing up blood, my liver was failing … so since October I’ve been sober. It wasn’t hard to stay away knowing that one drink could make that difference,” she added.
During that period, Renaud said her “mind was always racing” and she “had trouble with anxiety.”
But things are much better now, being sober, she said.
“It feels good because I see things kind of differently.”
Renovations to the building housing the apartments were paid for by the City of Toronto.
A chance to rebuild her life with her children
When she was three years old, she and her six-year-old brother were adopted by a family in Hearst.
After leaving home at 16,.Renaud lived on the streets, first in Ottawa, then North Bay, before arriving in Toronto.
The mother of five said even though her children are not physically present, they are always with her. Their five names are tattooed on her arms.
She said the new apartment is also a chance for her to begin rebuilding her life with her children.
A godmother to Mary-Jane
A few months ago, Renaud and her boyfriend decided to end their relationship.
But she said she is a godmother to Mary-Jane — a service dog — who is a constant companion in her life these days.
“She helps a lot with anxiety,” Renaud said.
“She picks up on a lot of energy. She can tell when I’m upset, so if I feel emotional she’ll come and nudge her nose and try to get under my arm. She’s really good for my anxiety.”
Renaud said having a place will help to ease things and provide more security.”
“It’s been a long, long couple of years. I feel like I’ve aged 20 years in the past two years with all the stress,” she said.
“I finally feel like I can relax, start thinking about doing programming, do some work with Sanctuary. They help out a lot of homeless people and I just want to show them my appreciation.”