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CAMH Stories Centre for Addiction
and Mental Health

Honour roll student by day; shelter resident by night: Mardi's story

By Sean O’Malley

Mardi Daley considers herself one of the fortunate ones. At least as fortunate as any young black woman can feel who spent much of her childhood living in homeless shelters or temporary housing in Toronto with a troubled single mother.

Because against all odds she not only endured, she prevailed.

Last week, she was front and centre at the official launch of the Housing Outreach Program-Collaboration (HOP-C) “survival” guide, written by and for young Canadians with lived experience of homelessness. It was Mardi, now 23, who led that collaborative effort by several clients of the HOP-C program to help youth in transition stay off the streets.

“I do feel fortunate, fortunate for being in the right place at the right time,” says Mardi. “That’s something I can’t overstate.”

For someone who had her first experience with a homeless shelter at the age of 7, that wasn’t always the case.

“Trying to go to school while being in a shelter, that sucked, especially when I started high school” said Mardi during a recent conversation at CAMH’s Out of This World Café. “Kids would go out to lunch at Starbucks or wherever and everyone had cash in their pockets and I only had five dollars for the whole week so I had to stretch those five dollars to fit in. I would save it all for Friday and go. That was my treat.”

Mardi Daley
Former homeless teenager Mardi Daley was the lead facilitator of the new HOP-C “survival guide”

Life seemed to start out OK for Mardi. Her mother, valuing education above almost all else, was able to afford private schooling for Mardi beginning in kindergarten. By the time she finished Grade Three however, private schooling was no longer a viable option. Housing continued to be precarious, and by Grade 5, she and her mother were back in the shelter system.

But it was not until she began those high school years, just when her peers were beginning to explore their independence, that she fully appreciated how difficult her world had become.

“That’s when I realized that something isn’t quite right here. I felt like the other kids wouldn’t understand and I didn’t want them to understand and make me part of a pity party. So I just kept my silence. I didn’t want anyone to know.”

That is where the fortunate part came. Mardi realized that she was a naturally gifted and determined student. She made the honour roll every year of high school, and beyond. Last Friday she graduated with distinction from the University of Toronto, earning an honours degree in political science.

“I did well in school and I wanted to do well. I also had mentors in my life who encouraged me and said that this was my exit ticket.”

But like many of the homeless youth she now counsels as a peer support worker, her journey from there to here was not a straight path. Among many pivotal moments, one in particular comes to mind.

“I was 16-years-old, applying for a scholarship using the public computer in the basement of the shelter I was living in. If that didn’t come through, I would have gone in a different direction.”

It is that kind of hard-earned wisdom that went into the HOP-C survival guide.

“What was really important was capturing the experience of transitional youth. We don’t always go in one direction. We may go forward and then fall back again. We wanted to make sure that was captured in the guide.”

The guide is meant to be used as a journal by youth transitioning out of homelessness. It is also filled with practical advice on things like self-care, budgeting, even cooking. Mardi hopes it can also be used as a kind of working guide for peer support workers and case managers who deal directly with youth in transition.

“They loved it because they saw it as something they could use with their clients,” says Mardi. “The guide belongs to the client, but when they are with their case workers they can open it up and both say ‘What are we going to work on today?’”

Mardi knows as well as all of those clients how precarious their lives can be, and the many ways they can go off the rails again no matter how hard they have worked to get off the streets.

“In terms of the social determinants of health, I’m not supposed to be sitting here with you right now at all. Knowing that is what pushed me into this work in the first place. You can do it, there’s no reason you can’t do it, but it’s OK if the path is not there yet. It’s OK to be patient as long as you keep working hard.”

Page published on June 22, 2017


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