It was just over a decade ago that Tammy Cunningham was at My Sisters’ Place as it opened its doors for the first time to offer Thanksgiving dinner to women who were homeless or at risk of homelessness.
Twenty women came through the doors at My Sisters’ Place that day, which was originally located in the former Sister’s of St. Joseph’s house at Queens Avenue and William Street.
On Tuesday (Oct. 14), Cunningham was at My Sisters’ Place to take part in an interactive kick off to the yearlong celebration of home’s decade of service to the community. My Sisters’ Place, a program of CMHA Middlesex, offers support and assistance to women facing homelessness.
From that modest beginning 10 years ago, My Sisters’ Place (566 Dundas St.) has grown to offer support services to 100-160 women per day. Last year alone, over 1,200 individual women were provided the same assistance that helped turn Cunningham’s life around.
“I came to London from Toronto to get a fresh start. I was pretty screwed up on drugs, but I was able to turn my life around,” Cunningham said. “I have two jobs now, a good roof over my head, a lot of support and great friends in the community. That, I believe, is because everyone pulled together to build this place.”
Cunningham praised My Sisters’ Place for “all the amazing things” it offers to people — in many cases, literally saving women’s lives by helping them break through the barriers women in homelessness often face.
Cunningham said she can’t believe 10 years has passed since the doors at My Sisters’ Place first opened. Quite frankly, Susan Macphail can’t either.
Macphail, director of My Sisters’ Place, said it is “absolutely amazing” to think of how far the home has come in 10 years.
However, Macphail, who is also director women's mental health resources at CMHA Middlesex, said the losses can’t be forgotten either.
“We have so many women who have gone on, back to school, stable housing, have been able to reunite with their family, their children, are coaching and mentoring other women,” Macphail said. “Sadly, we have lost a significant number of women to death because we have learned women’s mortality with homelessness is much higher than men’s. So that is a reality too.”
My Sisters’ Place has succeeded, Macphail said, “by hook or by crook,” possibly because of the naysayers who said such a program could never succeed.
“Never tell a group of determined women that something can’t be done,” Macphail said. “What you are looking at is the evidence of what can be done when you hold fast to the dream and vision and work together with the community.”
To celebrate its decade of service, the staff and clients at My Sisters’ Place held an event they called A Day in the Life of a Sister. The interactive program allowed visitors to the home to speak with staff and volunteers who were taking part in interactive exhibits on the home’s second and third floors. Macphail said the idea, which was created by the clients themselves, was to bring home the reality of a woman’s life on the street.
Donna Wyatt knows just how difficult that life can be.
Five years ago Wyatt walked into My Sisters’ Place for the first time. Without hesitation she credits the home, and more importantly the women in it, with helping her turn her life around.
A lot of times the women at My Sisters’ Place aren’t particularly close to their own families, whether because of drug abuse, mental illness, or other reasons. However, that sense of family is very much found within the walls at My Sisters’ Place.
“I am thinking about the community that is here, the services that are offered. I was going through trauma back then and I am in a much better place today because of My Sisters’ Place,” Wyatt said. “I think people need to understand how important that sense of being together with each other is. The programs are important, but that feeling of sisterhood is really essential.”
Don Seymour, CEO at CMHA Middlesex, understands how important that role is in the lives of those who come to My Sisters’ Place.
Seymour said the world would be a better place if women, indeed, all people who are homeless or feel marginalized, didn’t need that “safe haven” to turn when they are feeling their lowest.
My Sisters’ Place, Seymour said, will continue to exist until the broader goal of eliminating the root causes of poverty and homelessness can be realized.
“Today is recognition of a date, but we are also celebrating that hundreds of women have succeeded . . . we also need to recognize hundreds of women didn’t succeed and are no longer with us,” Seymour said. “Mental illness is a killer, homelessness is a killer, but until we start looking at all those things in the same vein as any other societal ill, we are going to be stuck with this.”