Serge Oullette is 58 years old. A wiry man with inquisitive eyes, he is a regular volunteer at Shelter House and also a former resident. Serge shows up most days, rain or shine to do the never-ending laundry that Shelter House produces. “I do it for two reasons,” he shares. “I want to help people that are in the same situation as me, and I want to keep busy and gain skills so that I can maybe find work.”
“When I was a kid, my dad was an alcoholic,” Serge recalls. “He was a violent man, and beat us kids all the time. Finally, I had enough of getting beat up, and I ran away when I was 14. I was caught by the authorities, who returned me to my aunt, because my dad had nearly killed me. He used a big leather strap, you know, or a hockey stick…”
As a result of the chaos in his childhood, Serge never finished school, only reaching grade six. At 17, he decided to leave Quebec and move to Vancouver in search of a better life. As a francophone, he had to quickly learn a new language. “I taught myself English with only a dictionary,” he laughs.
Serge has moved around Canada a fair bit, looking for work. “I returned to Quebec for a few years to help my mom, but ended up in Leamington, Ontario where I was involved in farming Angus beef. I eventually got married. By then I was working construction. But when I lost my job after eight years, I guess I gave up on everything. I walked away from my marriage, house and life,” he recalls.
Serge continued his travels, living in Winnipeg, Calgary, and then back in Winnipeg, where a series of muggings made him decide to move yet again. “I jumped on the bus and said, ‘Where can I go with 100 bucks?’ The driver said I could get to Thunder Bay, and here I am, four months later.”
Serge spent over two months in Shelter House. Now in his own place, I asked Serge what he would do if he had a magic wand and could make it easier for people to get housing. He started with the obvious. “Well, better and more affordable housing in general,” he said. “There’s really no decent places for people who don’t have a good income.” He thought for a moment, and then added, “What we also really need is a person or organization that helps people adjust to life in a home. People sometimes need help to learn how to stay in housing, and if they got a little help, they could hold onto their place for a lot longer.”