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JOHN DeMONT: After ‘three bad blows,’ 63-year-old woman ends up living in car

Like most of us, Joni Rutledge had heard the old caution: that even with our enviable Canadian social safety net we are all only two or three lost paycheques away from living on the streets.

Did she give that cruel reality much thought? Probably no more than you or I.

“Then, I had three bad blows,” she told me, “and here I am.”

Here is the parking lot of the Walmart store in Dartmouth Crossing.

If you happened to drive through the far end of the lot Wednesday you would have seen the 63-year-old woman’s home, which is a blue 2010 Pontiac G5 sedan, huddled, for shelter, next to an unoccupied RV.

“I’m the face of homelessness,” said this diabetes sufferer whose next bath will likely take place in a store or restaurant washroom, this woman who depends upon blankets and her car heater to stay warm, and the peanut butter and crackers she keeps in the back seat to keep her fed.

Then, as the folks looking to get a jump on their Christmas shopping passed by outside, she proceeded to tell me her story.

How she was born in Halifax, spent her early years in Sydney, then moved for a time to Belleville, Ont., before returning home to look after her mother in Cole Harbour.

“I told her,” Rutledge said, “that I would never put her in a nursing home.”

"I am the face of homelessness," says Joni Rutledge. - Ryan Taplin
"I am the face of homelessness," says Joni Rutledge. - Ryan Taplin

So, for eight years she cared for her mom, just as she would look after a special needs niece, whom she treated like “a daughter,' and a mechanic brother who got cancer and required palliative care. In time Rutledge found work in a call centre in Dartmouth’s Burnside Industrial Park. She had been working there for eight-and-a-half years when her luck turned.

In late 2018, she had to have three toes removed due to complications from diabetes. When the leave of absence from the call centre ran out Rutledge returned to work, almost surely too soon, because she needed the money. But she could only work part time, and her hours were cut back.

The bills were piling up. Rutledge was falling behind on her rent. Last June 30, she was evicted from her beloved Albro Lake Road apartment.

A brother-in-law let her stay in a house he had sold, before the new owner took occupancy. But the move from her apartment to there was hard on her, forcing Rutledge to repeatedly call in sick.

On July 10, Rutledge was fired for absenteeism. “I don’t resent it,” she said. “I knew the rules of the call centre, and I didn’t comply with them.”

That kind of generosity of spirit is moving, because just weeks later she was living in her car, which she parked at first in front of her brother-in-law’s place and then moved from place to place every couple of days.

Somehow Walmart, which allows campers, vans and trucks to overnight in its parking lots across Canada, got on her radar. Mostly she’s been there ever since.

“People have been so very kind to me,” Rutledge says.

"People have been so very kind to me."

Like the friend who took her in during hurricane Dorian, and the aforementioned brother-inlaw who put her up in a downtown hotel — “It was sooo nice to have a bed and a bathroom”— and then an Airbnb, until his credit card maxed out.

Like Evan Langford a friend and co-worker who has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help her after reading about her plight when this story was first published Dec. 5.

And like Barbara Adams, the MLA for Cole Harbour-Eastern Passage, who last week stirred the pot at the Department of Community Services to the point where it found Rutledge a few days of accommodations in a motel on the Bedford Highway.

By then misfortune had hit again. Since she lived mostly in her car, seldom taking off her shoes and socks, Rutledge was unaware that a blister had formed on her heel and gotten infected.

She’s supposed to wear a special protective boot while her foot heals, but that makes driving impossible and Rutledge needs to be able to get around.

The last time she went to see a specialist he said, “Look I know your situation is difficult, but if you soon don’t get a place where you can be off your feet somewhere safe then you will lose that foot.”

But Rutledge gets just $277 monthly from CPP. She’s been denied EI because she was fired from the call centre.

Some assistance might have been available from the Department of Community Services but they required a mailing address, which is hard when you live in a car.

“There are a lot of people who fall through the cracks,” she said, “but there are also a lot of cracks that shouldn’t be there.”

“There are a lot of people who fall through the cracks," says Joni Rutledge, "but there are also a lot of cracks that shouldn’t be there.” - Ryan Taplin
“There are a lot of people who fall through the cracks," says Joni Rutledge, "but there are also a lot of cracks that shouldn’t be there.” - Ryan Taplin

So, unless something changes, you will know where to find her, at the far left of the Walmart lot, waiting for the winter snow to fall.

At night, when it gets too cold she turns on the car heater for a few minutes to warm her up.

Friends sometimes give her money. If she has little extra she will sometimes in the morning splurge on a breakfast sandwich.

Rutledge, whose knees are painfully arthritic and who walks with a cane, washes up in rest rooms in the area. Every time she does so she fears that some staff member will tell her that she isn’t welcome there any longer.

When I ask her if there is anything that anyone reading this column could perhaps do for her she laughs, which amazingly, seems to be her reaction to most things, including her predicament.

This, after all, is a woman who spent her birthday pushing a cart around the Dartmouth Ikea, which she loves, even though she couldn’t buy a single item.

“I’d say how about three months in Greece,” she responded.

You see that’s always been on her bucket list, and lately that bucket has had a hole in it.

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