When You Live in a Shelter, Self-Care Means More than Just a Face Mask

*Trigger warning* This article contains references to suicide and physical abuse

Radha, standing on stage in an off-the-shoulder top, speaking to a crowd

Radha speaking about her experience at an event. (Photo: Courtesy of Eva’s Initiatives for Homeless Youth)

We all deserve some self-care—but what ‘self-care’ means can vary from person to person.

For a lot of people, it means doing things like getting your nails done or making a ‘treat yourself’ purchase, ways of stepping back from the hustle of jobs and activities to just relax and unwind. But what does self-care look like when you don’t have a place to call home, let alone a bathroom to apply a face mask—or money to buy one? For youth who are experiencing homelessness,  like me, self-care can look very different than what is advertised online, but that doesn’t make it any less vital. For me, self-care doesn’t mean taking a step back from life or work, but rather, working harder: volunteering, exploring  fashion and art and doing everything I can to turn my passions into a career.

Self-care is a privilege, but not only for monetary reasons

As much as I love the idea of self-care now, it was never something I’d given much thought to before I left home. Frankly, the situation with my parents was so all-encompassing that it left little room to think about anything else. 

I don’t remember a time when my parents weren’t abusive, first with each other, then with my two older siblings and, eventually, with me. Growing up in Germany, I remember planning to run away around the age of six because I hated seeing my older brother and sister being beaten up. Being so young, I felt like there wasn’t anything I could do to help them. I hated it even more when my siblings left. My parents insisted that they both get married young—at 18—and when they did, they moved out, leaving my younger sister and I to suffer the brunt of our parents’ anger. (My younger brother was just a baby at the time.)

When we moved to a small town in Manitoba,  leaving my elder siblings behind in Germany, my parents’ fighting only got worse. Then, when I was 15, my parents got divorced and my mom, sister, brother and I moved to Toronto. That’s when it became too much for me to handle, because my mom’s anger became worse, and she took it out primarily on me. 

The abuse was both physical and verbal, and I never knew when something would set her off. One New Year’s Eve, I was particularly depressed—I kept remembering, and missing, how happy our holidays used to be. My mom had spent the day cooking and cleaning and didn’t think I was appreciative of her work, so she dragged me by my hair towards the door, screaming that she’d send me back to Manitoba. She eventually let me go, but only because my 14-year-old sister stepped in. 

As living with my mom became worse, I didn’t have the mental capacity to care for myself. I became increasingly depressed and I thought about killing myself almost every day. Writing, drawing, being creative—all the things I loved to do as a mental escape—none of that was an option when I was at home. If I did find a moment of solitude, I was fearful of taking it, sure that my mom would burst into my room and call me lazy, or worse. For a while, I was allowed to be a part of Sea Cadets. In that three hours a week, I was free. I was allowed to be with my friends and able to take part in something I openly enjoyed. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. Like so many times before, my mom forbid me from attending as a way to punish and control me.

Running away meant I could explore my passions in a way I never could at home

I left home for good in March 2015, a few months before my 18th birthday. I’d managed to save some tokens, and took the subway from the west end to a youth shelter downtown. I had called ahead to shelter intake to make sure there was a bed available for me and that fit my criteria: close enough to the welfare office and other services that I could walk, and far enough away from my mom.

The day I ran away is also the day I started exploring fashion. I joined a small one-week fashion program at the Horizons Youth Shelter, signed up to model in a charity fashion show and later enrolled in PactFashion, a sewing and fashion design program for at-risk youth in Toronto. It was like stepping into a whole new world, one that previously felt completely out of my reach. Living with my mom I always thought, Sure, I like fashion, I like sewing, I like designing stuff, but I’d never  considered it as a career path. I’d never had the time or familial support to even consider, let alone pursue it. It wasn’t until I was able to try out these programs that I realized I had the talent, skill and passion to pursue it further, that this is something I could really explore.

Brainstorming, designing and sewing may sound like work, but for me, fashion became my form of self-care. Doing anything creative has always been my mental escape; I can spend hours drawing or writing, creating a small space in which I could truly be myself.

PactFashion was a physical space I could escape to weekly to take time for myself. It gave me something to look forward to after first leaving home. But soon, it became so much more than just a physical escape. Being in the design studio and creating something from scratch was mentally rewarding. Fashion was a medium that allowed me to creatively express myself. Putting all my energy into a piece, getting caught up for hours, was cathartic. It helped ease my anxiety and it made me happy.

When I was living at home, I’d never been allowed to focus on myself or my goals, I was too busy trying to cope. 

When I first left home, I was juggling high school, trying to get into university, two part-time jobs hostessing and bussing and pursuing creative hobbies. It was really hard. But, for the first time in my life, I was working toward a future—one beyond the shelter, beyond my parents’ abuse and entirely for me. 

For people in my situation, self-care is vital

Regardless of how people subscribe to self-care, it’s extremely important to take time for yourself, especially for those in similar situations to mine: away from home, moving between shelters, experiencing abuse and anxiety or having thoughts of suicide.

When I was living at home—at my most anxious and suicidal—my only escape was daydreaming. While that may not sounds like the type of self-care that makes headlines these days, back then, it was everything to me. In those rare moments, I could take time for myself and envision my life beyond its current reality—beyond the fights, the abuse, the unhappiness.

Four years after first leaving home and entering the shelter system, I’m now attending Ryerson University for Business Management. I’ve moved into more permanent housing and recently, in large part thanks to PactFashion, I’ve turned my love for leatherwork and design into a career—recently launching  my eco-friendly leather company Royal & Rich. We specialize in backpacks. My home situation has changed, but my self-care remains the same. After classes and between jobs or when I’m feeling a bit down, I still turn to creative outlets. In addition to working on my fashion company, I love to write fiction and turn my daydreams into stories. I’ve always loved reading, so why not create something that I’d love to read? And I’m getting into acting, too.  I practice scenes for at least an hour a day and find going on auditions to be therapeutic. 

My self-care may not look like the trendy combo of yoga, face mask and Netflix, but learning to care for myself has helped me reclaim my life, and my future. —as told to Katherine Singh

Editor’s Note: Radha requested that her last name be withheld. Also, it’s important to acknowledge that her situation isn’t representative of all youth who are experiencing homelessness. For a lot of youth, leaving home doesn’t always make things better, and can be dangerous. This situation is particular to Radha.


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