Heroine for the Homeless

Advocate Rose Henry knows all too well the dangers of the streets

  • Jul. 20, 2011 6:00 p.m.

Rose Henry could map her life with ups and downs, but the aboriginal and homelessness advocate has been inspiring people in Victoria for years.

Advocate Rose Henry knows all too well the dangers of the streets

You’ve likely seen her standing outside the Bay Centre on Douglas Street. She might have greeted you with a smile and an offer to buy a copy of Victoria Street Newz. Her face is a road map of a rough life on the streets, but there’s something in her eyes, a twinkle that says here is a woman worth knowing. Her name is Rose Henry and this is her story.

Where it all began

Rose was born on June 15, 1958 in Bremerton, Washington where her 15-year-old mother and 19-year-old father were picking strawberries for survival. She was the first and only girl of the four children her parents would have.

Two months later, the family moved back to Sliammon, north of Powell River. She never had a chance to bond with her parents because at the age of two, citing “illness” as the reason, the federal government removed her from her family home and placed her in a quasi-residential school called Sunny Hill Hospital. There she remained for the next six years.

At Sunny Hill, Rose was classified as “mentally retarded” and made a ward of the government. At eight years of age, she was removed from the hospital and placed with foster parents, but the “mentally retarded” label went with her. Rose stayed with her foster parents for 11 years, and they soon became mom and dad. She often refers to them as “The Pillars.” They gave her a set of values that provided her with the moral compass she still follows today.

Rose’s foster parents had three children of their own and four foster aboriginal children. It was in this family with compassion, love and understanding that Rose was able to finally let go of the label she was given at two. Instead, “The Pillars” instilled in her the idea that she could reach for the stars. They provided structure, consistency, trust and commitment — none of which Rose had ever known before. Doctors and nurses were symbols of pain because of all those years spent in the hospital.

At 14, Rose went before the Canadian Citizenship board to apply for her citizenship in order to obtain a Social Insurance Number and birth certificate. When the judge’s clerk asked, “Do you swear?” Rose responded, “No, sir.”

The judge was taken aback by this strange reply and asked her why not. Rose replied, “Because my mother is in the courtroom in the front row and if she heard me swear I would get my mouth washed out with soap when we got home.” After what seemed an eternity of laughter from everyone, including the judge, Rose became a Canadian citizen, born abroad.

Her foster parents also taught her the value of money. She worked every summer and learned how to save for the things she needed. At 15, she enrolled in the Canadian Army cadets, again learning structure and how to stand on her own two feet. When she learned of a special Aboriginal summer camp in Alberta, she single-handedly raised the $500 registration costs by babysitting and delivering newspapers.

At 19, when the foster funding ended, Rose struck out on her own and travelled to Calgary where her brother lived. It was here Rose’s life took another turn.

She partied for six months until all her money ran out. Then, reality set in.

Rose knew she had to earn her own living, so she got a job as a chambermaid at the Four Seasons Hotel. Her brother decided to move on, leaving Rose alone in the big city. All those familiar pains of abandonment started to return. All too soon, her life took a downward spiral.

Life on the streets

Partying again to escape her fear of abandonment and unworthiness, Rose fell prey to the sweet talk, emotional blackmail, expensive gifts and promises of money from a smooth pimp who introduced her to the world of prostitution. As a very pretty young aboriginal woman in a city of “rednecks,” Rose’s new life now consisted of johns, rape, drugs, beatings and emotional neglect.

One night, a john wrapped a rope around her neck, tightened it, and placed a gun to her head. A death-defying struggle ensued; he dragged her outside and tossed her naked into a garbage bin in -36°C weather. Her survival instincts took over. Rose managed to drag herself to a nearby fire hall where a firefighter took her to the closest hospital. When a police officer arrived, he called her “a drunken Indian” and walked away in disgust, not even bothering to take her statement.

With her self-esteem on empty, Rose returned home to B.C. Her money ran out at Salmon Arm. While visiting friends there, a family doctor asked why her left arm was folded up against her chest. It had been frozen in that position for nine months following the trauma of the rope-choking incident.

The doctor examined her and referred her to a specialist in Kamloops the very next day. Having no money, she went to a truck stop to hitch a ride. She was given a ride by a truck driver who then raped her. When she finally got to Kamloops, a surgeon said the injury was so serious that her arm should be amputated as soon as possible. The pre-op tests were ordered and taken.

When the test results came back, Rose learned that she was pregnant.

Her surgery was cancelled and Rose was given a choice: she could terminate the pregnancy and have the critical surgery the following day, or she could live with the constant pain and go to term with her child. Rose chose the baby.

This choice became a pivotal point in her life. Intuitively, she knew she had to grow up (mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically) if she was going to have a healthy child. She did not know how to be a parent, but her son was born healthy and strong. Caring for this child kept Rose very active. And, with the activity, her arm healed and remains whole to this day, with only a few visible scars.

With the lessons learned from her foster parents, Rose became the good parent she wanted to be. Her young son was a daily reminder of how far she had come. At 25, she was a sober single parent (Rose has been sober for 28 years now), providing for her son to the best of her ability. When he was six months old, Rose decided it was time to improve her small family’s life by completing Grade 12, and entering college to become a childcare worker.

It would be another 22 years but, at age 47, Rose earned her high school diploma. Today, Rose is a powerful, articulate communicator, but 22 years ago, writing posed an almost insurmountable challenge. A teacher at Camosun College discovered that cultural learning factors could be in play. When this issue was addressed, the floodgates opened and Rose progressed dramatically. Rose was able to learn if music and rhythm were used as educational aids. It was here that she planted seeds for what is now Camosun’s very successful Aboriginal Education & Community Connection department.

It was Rose’s own determination and tenacity that in the end helped her reach her star.

Rose sees the universe as a huge compost. From discarded, unwanted garbage and waste, can come new, healthy, clean earth ready for growing beautiful flowers and nutritional organic food. Out of what we mistakenly label as junk, Rose insists goodness, miracles and dreams can be born.

At 52, Rose has now come to the realization that she has the power to overcome any barrier that life throws in her path. M

Ernie Tadla is a happiness activist and volunteer at Our Place.

Rose in Scotland to receive award

Rose Henry is currently at the International Network of Street Newspapers conference in Glasgow, Scotland, where she received a prestigious award for her homelessness advocacy.

Along with her award — presented for an article she wrote on economic violence and women last December — Rose is participating in various workshops and networking with representatives from newspapers around the world.

Last year, Rose was chosen as Victoria Street Newz’s delegate for the North America Street Newspaper Association conference held in Chicago.

“[Trips like this] are a real struggle for people like me who don’t have a credit card, or a steady income … but we have to give ourselves permission to move forward sometimes, and this is worth it,” she says. “There are positive stories out there, and it’s worth it to go to new places to find new solutions.”

A portion of her expenses were covered by a scholarship she received in conjunction with the award, but Rose is still trying to garner up enough funds to pay off the rest.

To donate to Rose’s trip or find out what she learned, visit relativenewz.ca, or contact Rose at rose@homelessnation.org. M

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