I graduated high school with honours, found a job and got into university—all while living on the street
My childhood was happy, quiet and blissfully normal. I grew up in Scarborough with my parents and older brother. My mom was an administrator for the TDSB and later worked the floor in a factory. My dad took a job as a janitor while putting himself through business school. In the evenings, my brother and I would sit on his lap while he pored over his textbooks. He would let us doodle in the margins as he hunched over them.
Everything changed when I hit puberty. In Sri Lankan culture, when a girl starts menstruating, her family holds a ceremony to mark the occasion. The day of my party, 50 family members gathered in my home to celebrate my passage into adulthood. I wore a heavy beaded pink sari and sat patiently while guests poured milk over my head—a custom meant to bless me with fertility—and recited blessings. Later, hundreds of friends and relatives joined us in a banquet hall to eat and dance.
My parents started treating me differently after that day. Since I was officially a woman, they believed I needed protection. If I wasn’t at school, I had to be home—at all times. They were terrified that I’d get a boyfriend and have premarital sex. They barred me from attending school trips or concerts. Sometimes teachers would phone home and try to change their minds. To avoid further questioning, my parents would pull me out and transfer me. By the time I was 17, I’d attended three high schools. I loved learning—it made me feel strong. Leaving was always hard.
One day, during the summer before Grade 12, my parents snooped through my inbox and found an email from a boy I’d met in a chat room. They freaked out. I tried to explain that he was just a friend, but they wouldn’t listen. That day, I realized any decision I made for myself would infuriate them. I couldn’t live like that. So I ran away, and, without my parents’ knowledge, I went to live with my aunt in Ottawa while I finished school. But a month after I moved in, my dad called the house. He was coming to pick me up.
I couldn’t go back. I grabbed my big red backpack and left. I didn’t think to bring tampons, food or a change of clothes. All I had were my textbooks. Even in my panic, I knew I needed to graduate. I took the bus downtown and headed to the Rideau Centre, which seemed like a good place to disappear. I didn’t think about where I’d sleep, what I’d eat or drink.
I couldn’t sleep—the anxiety and adrenaline were too powerful. Instead, I wandered until sunrise. When I tried to sit on the sidewalk, a homeless man came over, yelling at me to get off of his turf. The same thing happened a few blocks over. Eventually, I dozed off on a park bench. I woke up starving and walked around, glancing into public garbage cans. I spotted a half-eaten bagel, still in its crinkled wrapping, and ate it without hesitation.
I took to scouring for food in dumpsters outside restaurants and grocery stores. On good days I’d score unfinished meals from a small Chinese restaurant or Tim Hortons. Staff regularly threw out huge bags of muffins, doughnuts and bread. I took what I could get. When you live on the street you have no choice. You have no freedom. I’d gone from one trap to another.
About three weeks after running away, I turned 18. Then I made my way a shelter for young women. Had I shown up earlier, I knew the staff would have had to call the police and inform my parents. At the shelter, the girls were four to a room, sleeping in tidy bunk beds. Some of my shelter-mates had drug dependencies, others were sex workers. Many had suffered abuse. I gravitated toward one girl who wore a hijab. She revealed that she was fleeing an arranged marriage. For months, I alternated between sleeping in the shelter and staying on the streets. When I needed something—protection from the cold, tampons, food—I’d stay indoors. The shelter provided as best as they could, but I knew their resources were stretched. When I could fend for myself, I left, opening space for someone else.
Most nights, I slept on sidewalks downtown. When the cold became unbearable, I’d break into parked cars using a hanger and take refuge for the night. The key was to doze sitting upright—the last thing you want is to fall into a deep sleep and get caught in someone’s back seat. Sometimes I went to school, and sometimes I was too embarrassed. I wore the same outfit every day: a lime-green Aeropostale sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. I never showered, and I washed my clothes in gas station sinks. Because they couldn’t dry out fully, they developed an overpowering musty odour. Once, a classmate passed along some leftover shepherd’s pie in a Becel container. But for the most part, my peers ignored me. I was the homeless girl who smelled bad.
One evening in late winter, I was sitting on an empty street, reading. A brown Oldsmobile stopped near me. The driver looked like he could have been a high school basketball coach—a middle-aged, bald white guy in khakis and a navy bomber jacket. He started asking me about my biology textbook, then offered to let me stay with him and his wife. It was snowy, and I had a cough. When we spoke, I could see my breath. I considered it. He told me I’d have to earn my keep. I was so naïve. I thought he meant cooking and cleaning. As I pressed him for details, he mentioned that friends of his might ask me for “favours.” That’s when it clicked—he was a pimp. I bolted. The man caught up and beat me to the ground, kicking me in the ribs. As soon as he left I crawled over to a snowbank and lay down, trying to dull the pain that tore through my body every time I coughed. As luck would have it, an off-duty paramedic was driving by and spotted me curled up in the snow. When he saw how hurt I was, he made sure I got to a hospital, where I was treated for a broken rib on my left side. After I was released, I returned to the shelter and stayed there.
School was my only path off the street. When I healed, I took the hour-and-a-half bus ride from the shelter to school every day. The teachers let me stay after hours to use the library computers and study. At the shelter, they gave me my own room so I could work late. By the end of the year, I’d successfully completed all of my credits.
Before graduation, one of the shelter staff took me to Dress for Success, a not-for-profit organization that helps women achieve economic independence by offering them support, development tools and free professional attire. There, I zeroed in on a bright red suit. Trying it on, I felt like Hillary Clinton—powerful, confident. I looked at my reflection and started to laugh. It was like seeing an old friend. I wore the suit to an interview at McDonald’s and got the job.
For a year, I saved money, taking home as much free food as I could. I probably ate hundreds of Big Macs. When I’d saved enough, I moved into community housing and got into McMaster’s biochemistry program. There, I fell into a gruelling schedule: class by day, then off to my McDonald’s night shift. During university, I finally reconciled with my parents. We talked on the phone, tentatively at first. When I graduated from McMaster, they attended the ceremony. Soon after that, I met my future husband. He was endlessly patient while I worked through my traumatic past.
After studying science, I was fascinated by how storytelling affects the brain’s neural activity, and I pursued a diploma in advertising at Seneca. Today, I work at an advertising tech startup. In 2017, I organized a clothing drive at my office for Dress for Success Toronto and revealed my history to my co-workers for the first time. I needed them to understand that homeless teens aren’t necessarily lazy or rebellious or dangerous. I hope that at least one of the suits we donated ends up with another homeless teen. That she can wear it to an interview of her own and start a new life for herself.
Share Ryan is a customer success manager at the ad tech startup StackAdapt.
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