Sandy Robb sat in a women’s shelter, smelling the sweet scent of Juicy Fruit gum. This was her selected $1.50 luxury for the week. However, the lingering scent was an indication that her one source of enjoyment had been stolen by another woman.
After this disappointment, Robb picked up the backpack filled with all of her belongings and left the shelter for the day. Walking down King Street in Fredericton, she saw two men sleeping under benches and another under a tree. When she returned to the shelter in the evening, she went to wash up. “When you take a shower, you have to take everything with you because others will steal it,” said Robb. This had become her new normal life.
Robb carries her vibrant smile wherever she goes. She has blonde hair that just passes her shoulders and red bags under her eyes. Her wardrobe consists of some garments that were once donated to Goodwill. Robb can often be found wearing a bright green sweater, which brings out her eyes, and khakis.
Her story began at the age of 15, when she became an alcoholic. She had her first baby girl three years later, which she gave up to her brother and his wife. She was attending New Brunswick Community College in Moncton to receive a General Educational Development in cooking. Robb worked as a cook in Campbellton, Gagetown and Saint John during her 30-year-long career.
Robb had her second baby girl at 21, which she decided to raise as a single mother. Nine years later, Robb was working two full-time jobs, 16 hours a day, in Campbellton. She noticed a 16-year-old girl living on the street near her home who had only a can of spaghetti to eat per day. She had been living in these conditions for a year, Robb said. Robb welcomed the young girl into her home and, two years later, she graduated high school on the principal’s list. When the principal asked Robb what she did to increase the foster child’s grades, she responded simply, “I gave her food.”
Robb says her daughters were raised to follow their passion and to stay out of trouble. “In my house, I didn’t have hard rules. Don’t get pregnant, I can do that. Don’t bring the cops, I can do that. Go to school and get good marks, “she said. Today, one of her children works at a youth care center in Saint John, the other works as an insurance advisor and her foster child works at a law firm in Toronto.
While her daughters followed their success stories, Robb faced numerous other challenges. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s, an inflammatory bowel disease. This required her to have bowel surgery to attach an ostomy, an external bag that collects feces, to her abdomen. One year later, her ostomy became infected and the surgery had to be reversed. The surgeon accidentally punctured one of her lungs, an injury she continues to struggle with today. Six months after her second surgery, she returned back to work as a cook at the Aquarius Tavern pub in Saint John. It was only five months later that she was laid off and couldn’t get employment insurance.
In her early 50s and struggling with Crohn’s disease, alcoholism and a punctured lung, Robb found herself homeless. However, Robb is not one to give up easy. “I’m a fighter, I fight back,” she said. She relocated to Fredericton, as the poor air quality in Saint John was too harsh on her newly injured lungs. She lived in the Women’s Homeless Shelter for three months before moving in with her youngest daughter. When this living arrangement failed, she became homeless again for a stretch of 11 months.
Robb’s health was severely declining. Everything except the milk and bread from the Fredericton Community Kitchen and Food Bank would make her feel ill. As Crohn’s disease causes one’s body to struggle to absorb nutrients, Robb needed to eat fruits and vegetables, not canned goods. “I just can’t eat it, if I eat it I get sick,” said Robb.
Once she was able to get welfare, Robb moved into subsidized housing. Even so, she struggled to pay for food. In New Brunswick, welfare payments are $537
a month. Housing costs $400 a month. This means that those relying on this assistance have $4.40 a day for food, transportation, hygiene products and clothing. “You can’t live properly,” Robb says. She manages to keep her home by budgeting and accepting as much help from her friends and church volunteers as possible. “I’ve got $15 in my wallet, $20 in one bank and $10 in the other,” said Robb. Still, her main priority is making sure she has extra money in case one of her daughters needs her support.
Four short years after finally having a home, Robb was diagnosed with lung cancer. The tumour removal process came shortly after and chemo therapy followed. Robb found it difficult to leave her house, as walking long distances put an immense strain on her lungs.
You will now find Robb every Monday morning at the Christ Church Cathedral Memorial Hall. She will either be shouting voucher ticket numbers at the top of her ill lungs or handing out food, including triangle-shaped sandwiches, tea and, on occasion, cheese. Social worker Murray Weeks tried to sample the cheese one Monday morning. As he reached for a piece, Robb playfully slapped his hand away. “Cheese is for the poor!” She said.
This weekly event gives the homeless community a chance to socialize and be fed. Ivan Chase, an attendee of the Monday breakfasts, grew up in foster care and now has diabetes. Unable to work, he lives in low-income housing. Weekly events like these help him to stay motivated and connect with others. “It’s just nice to make conversation with people,” said Chase.
Volunteer Rose McDonald is also one of those who come in for food and friendship. In her early fifties, she suffers from such severe back pain that she is unable to work. McDonald lives in low-income housing and has struggled to make ends meet. “My rent was $250, and that’s almost what my entire cheque was,” said McDonald. Before the welfare increase in 2009, the government only gave her $300 a month. She lived on just $50 a month and turned to panhandling. “I’m not proud of it,” McDonald says.
To continue helping people like Chase and McDonald, Robb has become a member of the Community Action Group on Homelessness in Fredericton. This group consists of over 30 government representatives, non-profit organizations and community leaders with the goal of ending homelessness. This last year, Robb used her experience as a homeless woman to work with the group in creating the Street Survival Guide. This booklet explained where help can be found for mental health issues, social assistance, buying bus tickets and applying for low income housing. It also lists all of the events that take place in nearby churches.
In February 2016, this group of 43 volunteers completed the Fredericton Homeless Count. For 24 hours the group walked the streets of Fredericton, counting the amount of people living in homeless conditions. They identified a minimum of 50 individuals living either in emergency shelters or on the street. This number does not include those couch surfing or struggling to afford low-income housing. Through conducting surveys and additional research, the Community Action Group estimates that there are at least 700 homeless in the city. By 2019, the Community Action Group aims to know every homeless individual by name and provide housing to at least 267 people.
Robb is now 60 years old, cancer-free and 12 years sober. She continues to struggle with infections in her punctured lung. Robb keeps in contact with her three daughters and often tells her fellow volunteers and friends how spectacular they are. Robb also enjoys chewing her Juicy Fruit gum in the comfort of her own home.