Skip to content

COLUMN: Ex-homeless teen mom now supporting the unhoused

'I've been down on my luck, so I know what it feels like,' says shelter worker who is putting her personal experiences to use to help others at The Lighthouse
Jen, a shelter worker at The Lighthouse, is using her personal experiences to help others.

This is the 15th in a series of columns written by staff from The Lighthouse to help the community better understand people experiencing homelessness and those who support them. This column will appear every other Monday.

Many of The Lighthouse’s staff begin working in the social services field because of personal experience. They have seen the impact of an event in their own lives that drastically changed their living situation. Some have experienced homelessness themselves. 

Today, we’d like to introduce you to Jen. Jen is a Shelter Worker at The Lighthouse. She’s on the front line, supporting participants while they stay in the emergency shelter. Jen decided to tell her story because she wants “people to understand why I am the way I am and where I come from.”

Jen’s life experience created a desire to help people, and she has been seeking to do this in various roles throughout her working life. 

Jen became an emancipated minor at age 12. Her family situation through the early part of her life had been difficult to say the least. Jen shares that she did not have the “normal kid experience.”

Her parents struggled with alcohol use. She doesn’t remember receiving anything from them at Christmas or on birthdays. She was sexually assaulted by three different family members while she was between the ages of four and 13. 

By the time she was 16, Jen was a mom to three kids. She was also experiencing homelessness.

Jen relied on support from the services that were available to her through this time. She bounced around for a while and spent some time living in a tent. She was also connected with the Children's Aid Society, and they helped her to get an apartment. Once she was housed, Jen still had to access the food bank.

“I used the Salvation Army,” she says, “but it wasn’t enough to get by. So I got a job and used subsidized daycare when I started working.” 

It was around this time that Jen met her husband. They knew they needed to get out of the area to make a change, and they moved to another city. Jen also shares that his family accepted her.

Having never had that experience with her own family, it was a welcome change. Jen and her husband had three children together, and as a family of eight, they built a life. 

Jen is resilient, and she continues to work through her trauma. Her abusers were prosecuted and put in jail, although Jen shares this was a challenging time for her.

Jen’s desire to make a difference has driven her to explore a variety of jobs. She went to school for cosmetology to become a hairdresser, then did administrative work, and eventually decided to become a personal support worker (PSW) following that.

“PSW work is one of the hardest jobs,” she says. “People with dementia can’t understand the help, and that makes it challenging.” 

Jen and her husband moved to Orillia in 2017.

“We came to be closer to family, although that didn’t exactly work out.” Her dad as well as her husband’s dad passed away within a week of each other, but she and her husband decided to stay in Orillia “because of the beauty of the lakes.”  

The move to Orillia coupled with the loss they experienced was difficult. “I was really struggling with bipolar at that time,” she says. “I couldn’t get out of bed for about a year, I was so depressed.”

Jen was able to access treatment thanks to her family doctor as well as a psychiatrist. “I did electric shock therapy for about a year.” The treatment worked, and Jen has seen a difference in herself. 

Family continues to be a big part of Jen’s life. At 48 years old, Jen has 18 grandchildren and is a great-grandma to three.

“My kids are all over the place – it’s a lot of Zoom calls,” she says. “One of my kids has a heroin problem. I learned a lot through that. She stole a lot of money from us. That experience has shown me what drugs can do to a family. She went to rehab, but she still struggles with it. Her kids are being cared for by another one of my daughters.”

Another of her daughters, along with her daughter’s fiance and son, currently lives with Jen and her husband. Jen’s five-year-old grandson has visited her at work, and he wondered why people were living at The Lighthouse.

When Jen explained a bit about homelessness, he said they could all come stay at their house. Jen says this kind of compassion is what she wishes everyone had, and she’ll continue to show this to everyone she interacts with.

“I’ve been down on my luck, so I know what it feels like,” she says.

When you ask her what it’s like working at The Lighthouse, Jen says, “Sometimes you get yelled at by people who are using services, but if you look beyond that, people are just frustrated, angry and tired of their circumstances.”

Jen says one of the reasons she loves working at The Lighthouse is the team she gets to work alongside. The Lighthouse staff care for each other as they work together to support vulnerable individuals.

Despite the challenges through which she has lived, Jen says, “I’m OK with it now. I’ve grown a lot and had a lot of counselling. I’ve done a lot of healing, and I’m still healing.”

She wants to take her experiences and use what she has been through to be able to support others.

Linda Goodall is the executive director at The Lighthouse. You can reach her at [email protected].

Rosemary Petersen is the assistant director at The Lighthouse.



Verified reader

If you would like to apply to become a verified commenter, please fill out this form.