Loved ones arrive inside a home decorated with all the trimmings for Christmas, sharing hugs and laughter while the aroma of turkey and apple pie fill the air.
They’ll exchange banter and gifts, and leave with full stomachs and hearts.
But while that might be reality for some, for others it’s a time of spending the holidays surrounded by strangers in a homeless shelter, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and no friends or family to visit.
Nicola Simpson was in Canada less than two months when she found herself in a shelter in late 2010.
She began to experience extreme violence at age 16 in her home country of Jamaica and was attacked physically and emotionally because residents of her small community rightly suspected she was a lesbian, she said.
“At age 16 most have their second or third child,” said the Bathurst Street and Wilson Avenue resident. “At 16 and not being pregnant in a small community, I stood out. I felt the need to date men to be seen in public so people would stop talking.”
After striking up a conversation with a Canadian tourist in 2008, Simpson decided to marry him shortly afterwards because “I was willing to do the straight thing for a while, or try. It was a choice between my mental health or my life.”
Marriage worked out well for the first two years because Simpson would only see her husband once a year when he visited and could avoid intimacy by blaming ‘that time of the month’.
But after she was accused of causing her mother’s stroke and ultimate death due to “stress from my sexual orientation” and beaten at the hands of supposed loved ones, Simpson fled underground and came to Canada to live with her husband in November 2010 out of “desperation,” she said.
After weeks of avoiding intimacy, Simpson packed her bags and headed to a shelter after she said her husband hit her, and took her passport and money.
“I spent my first Christmas in Canada in a shelter,” she said.
Without having anywhere to go and not knowing a soul, she soon left that shelter for North York Women’s Shelter (NYWS), where she stayed for about a year.
“I can look back and it’s been quite an amazing journey for me,” Simpson said, adding NYWS provided her with lawyers to settle family and immigration matters.
Her refugee application was granted, as was her divorce, and she now resides in a Toronto Community Housing building with goals of becoming an immigration lawyer as her way of giving back.
With Christmas days away, the 37 year old said her hope for the holidays is for people to be a little kinder to one another this time of year.
“The first night I was in the shelter, I was upset, I was frustrated, I was confused,” she said. “I had so many questions. What am I doing here? How did this happen?”
She credits NYWS staff for creating a welcoming environment, where even the simplest of words can have a huge impact.
“We were going out one day, and (a case worker) said, ‘hurry up and come back home,’” Simpson recalled. “You don’t understand how that feels, to hear the word ‘home’.”
Residents would wake up Christmas morning to piles of presents from donors such as pyjamas and toiletries, and other things they would need when moving out on their own, she said.
“It’s absolutely amazing people take time out to make someone else’s Christmas a little more special,” she said. “If I’ve never experienced North York Women’s Shelter, I would just be another person Christmas shopping and focusing on me. You never get what people go through unless you’ve been there. You learn to appreciate a little more what you have. I’m not going to judge, but it would be great to focus on the people around you.”
She recalled being fearful she would be kicked out of NYWS if she revealed her sexual orientation, but came out to a social worker anyway.
“She hugged me,” Simpson said. “I was not expecting that. I was not aware how accepting (Canadians) were. I’m able to identify without fear.”
Mohini Datta-Ray, executive director for NYWS, a 30-bed emergency shelter for women and children, said while Christmas might be a time to get together with relatives, for a lot of people family is an unsafe option.
“We try to make sure we acknowledge holidays celebrated by those in our shelter,” she said.
For Christmas this year, all residents received vouchers to have photos taken with Santa at Yorkdale Shopping Centre, everyone pitched in with tree decorating, and each resident will be treated to an offsite buffet lunch, she said.
“It’s not an easy thing to be away from your network,” Datta-Ray said. “We try to make sure it feels like home.”