Group Homes, Death, Myths, Madness, and Rediscovering Reading

Welp, it’s been a while since I updated my website. I’ve been busy surviving a whole, actual, ongoing pandemic. It’s a thing. You can probably relate. Since my last update, lots of works that were in the pipeline have come out, so with only…

this much…

further ado…

here they are!

Apparition Lit, the funky independent, speculative lit mag that published my flash piece Seeking Same a few years back, shared my new essay about rediscovering reading after being diagnosed with Covid. Called When We Lost Touch, it’s—at heart—a love letter to the literary community and anyone who is creating art in this impossible time.

Stone of Madness Press picked up my stream of consciousness poem, Familiar, that tries to explain/invite people in to a moment of cPTSD-related panic.

Anti-Heroin Chic shared my group home story-verse about the moment I realized the grass on the other side can be a pretty, green lie. You can read Untended here.

Like everything helmed by Chris Talbot-Heindl, All My Relations is a gorgeous, honest collection that spends time in the concepts of death and loss without losing sight of how delicate and necessary mourning can be. My piece, Death Is a Way to Come Home: Rituals for the Estranged, is a creative non-fiction essay that visits the ways I’ve learned to mourn my estranged family members.

Finally, the minison zine’s mythology themed 12th issue includes three of my pieces: heroes villains, my creation myth, and ra was the sun god. Each poems is made up entirely of lines that are also anagrams of the title. I like to give myself a challenge.

That’s all for now! Hopefully I can find the spoons to get back to writing and submitting soon.

Centring our creative community

This week, I’m giving a boost to a new anthology called It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility. I backed their Kickstarter, so my copy just arrived in the mail! It’s full of speculative lit featuring all kinds of Queer stories. It takes Queer-friendly space literally and I love it. You can buy it as an eBook, paperback, or audio book here.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

A Questionnaire for Reporters Writing About Folks Experiencing Homelessness


CW: homelessness, violence, illness, hunger, food, institutionalization, cPTSD, medication, psychiatry.
  1. What’s the largest bruise a security guard has left on your body? Could you draw it back on from memory? Is it tattooed in your brain, even as it’s faded from your skin?
  2. How many tuberculosis tests have you had to take? Can you count them on one hand? Do your hands still shake?
  3. Which item that you sold for food do you regret the most? Or have you learned that regret only comes in moments of quiet? Do you avoid quiet so that you can’t hear your stomach or your knees or your spine play the symphony of privation?
  4. How many times has your life been reset to zero point? If it happens again, will you cry or have you spent all your tears? Do people tell you that you are strong when really, you’re just not dead yet?
  5. How many flashlights have shone through small windows at you while you tried to sleep? Did it jar you awake? Did the subsequent nightmares feature every terror you’d run away to escape?
  6. What was it like cutting your meds in half to make them last longer? How many months did you have to save for a therapy session? What did it feel like when the therapist cringed while you described your life?
  7. What is the coldest your toes have ever been? How many days did the ache linger? Does a drop in temperature still make you panic?
  8. Will you tell the truth when the kid at the kiosk in the mall asks you why you even want this job? What address will you put on the application? Can you wear a retail-ready smile for ten hours after figuring out which play structure in the park offers the most cover from the rain?
  9. How many times has someone watched you use the washroom? How many case workers have laid hands on you? How young were you the first time you were under the care of someone who saw you as consumable?
  10. What makes you think you’re qualified to tell our stories?
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There Are No Demons

Heads up to those reading this: I mostly use this website to talk about my creative efforts. This isn’t that. This is a personal piece of writing I’ve done in solidarity with others speaking up. I wan’t to make sure you are jumping into this from an informed space. I’m also including links to the RAINN helpline, the Trevor Project helpline, and this list of global crisis lines, in case they are needed.

TW/CW: Child sexual abuse, homelessness and precarious housing, homomisia, suicide, neglect, religious abuse, exorcism (yeah, it gets weird).

With all that in mind, I’ll begin.

When I started to write this, I was sitting in my backyard. Small birds danced in and out of my yard-sale bird feeder. Like most of the objects in my personal sanctuary, the bird feeder had been lovingly sanded down and given a fresh coat of paint. I find satisfaction in rescuing discarded things and offering them another go round. I believe—maybe to my own detriment—in second chances. When I was very young, I believed in infinite chances. Circumstances have required that I pare that down. 

Between bird visits, I was reading articles about restorative justice on my phone. I sought answers to the not-yet-fully-formed question that (my partner pointed out) was taking up far too much of my bandwidth.

The question is nebulous and too broad to ever answer: What is the right thing to do?

Here’s the deal (and this is where those trigger warnings I mentioned above start to kick in):

A grown man who was a once a precious child shared a recounting of a church leader abusing him.

(I find, already, a challenge in communicating this. There are so many adjectives that we use to describe the sexual abuse which adults inflict on children. Devastating. Horrifying. Heartbreaking. I don’t think any of them nail it. Is there a word big enough, and yet precise enough, to describe what a recounting of abuse is?)

A grown man who was a once a precious child shared a devastating, horrifying, heartbreaking recounting of a church leader abusing him. He also talked about the church’s response and the further devastation, horror, and heartbreak it caused.

When I think about the church, I’m suddenly inside a red brick building that smells like lemon soap and everyone’s best Sunday perfume. I’m walking on the orange carpet to find a seat in the section where the youth group sits. There are hymnals, but most of the songs we sing are projected on a screen using overhead slides. No PowerPoints yet. This was the 90s.

You know it’s a cool church because they have a band. You know it’s a serious church because the head pastor used to be a scientist. You know it’s a patriarchal church because all of the elders (like a board of spiritual directors) are cis men. That’s still true. They recently voted, again, against allowing anyone of another gender to serve in this role.

For a most of my high school years, I loved this place. My first visit came when a classmate invited me to a youth event. When she moved across the country the next year, I just kept going. They couldn’t get rid of me. My home was full of abuse and chaos, but here there was a promise of found family and of shared goodness. Here there were cookies for snack and sometimes concerts in the sanctuary. Here there was an all-powerful something-or-other that could hear my prayers.

My question—what’s the right thing to do?—they had an answer for that. And it was a magic answer. It was an instant answer. It was an answer that I could get for a few words, though I’d have to commit for my whole life. And I wanted to.

This is all part of the puzzle as I try to figure out the right thing to do. 

I’m not going to drag this out. I’ve known since that very brave man spoke out what the right thing to do is.

It’s to state unequivocally that I support him. It’s to make sure he knows he’s not alone. And it’s to share parts of my experiences at RAC, in the time and way that I’m able, so that other people can see that there are more of us.

I don’t know why numbers change things when it comes to organizational and institutional abuse, but they do. We know that the more people come forward, the less folks get to act like nothing happened.

Something happened.

(Look at me, using the passive voice.)

The something is abuse. And it didn’t just happen. An individual chose to do it and others colluded to cover it up. It’s part of the history of that building, that organization, and that community.

To clarify: I’m not a christian now. I exist in that wonderfully queer space between atheist and pagan that allows for ritual and wonder but doesn’t require promising bits of myself to folks who wont take care of them. One reason I’ve been slow to respond is that I know non-christians, like myself, who challenge churches are easily dismissed. So are queer folk. We don’t exist in their moral hierarchy. They’ve got a holy edict and I worship good karaoke and bad thrift store finds. I’m a very different human than I was when I sounded the alarm about the layperson youth leader who harassed, groomed and solicited me. I can’t fit back into their boxes and they likely won’t be willing to visit mine. We’re at an impasse.

I’ve emailed the organization—The Clergy Abuse Resource Team (CART)—that the larger governing body set up to take in reports of abuse. I’ve not heard back from them. Please know that I am resisting making a CART before the horse pun.

I also have no faith (in the practical, not the mystical sense) in any of the other systems in place to seek something called justice. The police are not a friend to survivors. The courts are not a friend to survivors. The press is not a friend to survivors.

I also hesitate because in the branching history of my existence, this isn’t the most rotten branch. What happened at RAC, it’s not small potatoes, but they’re in a pretty big bushel.

When this potato hit, I was a precariously-housed teenager who travelled from a different city on two bus services. I did it to keep this church in my devastating, horrifying, and heartbreaking life. I mean, it was also a normal life. It wasn’t just me being sad and destroyed. I was in high school when Boyz II Men were a thing. It’s hard to be sad listening to those harmonies. I, with my off-brand walkman, spent way-too-much of my almost-no money taking those buses to RAC. I did it because after losing my home, my school, and my mental health, I couldn’t lose my church too. I couldn’t.

Long story very short, because the details don’t serve me shared here: A layperson youth leader (like a volunteer, but with a degree from a bible college) saw this busted, destroyed, occasionally suicidal child and thought…

Actually, I have no idea what he thought. I used to obsessively read anything I could find about why grown folks hurt kids. There are myriad reasons and I’m not qualified to say what his were.

I can say it sucked. It mirrored my experiences at home. I’m not going to oversell it. I got out of it better than lots of others. But yeah, it sucked. There’s no cautionary tale here. Don’t accept a ride home from an evening church event with a youth leader? Was I any safer on the late night bus? There were no safe options for me. I don’t believe in safe options. They don’t exist. Vulnerable people, especially once someone has abused us at home, get targeted over and over in life. We often don’t have the skills or resources to seek justice. And what even is justice? They (whoever they are in any situation) know that we lack credibility because our society’s metric of credibility also sucks. They choose us precisely because of this.

It all sucks.

(But I have a backyard now and sparrows come to my bird feeder and that doesn’t suck. My current life is full of things that don’t suck.)

But this? This sucked. And what happened after was worse.

Almost immediately, I reported it to the church leadership. I earnestly believed something would be done.

They told me he’d repented and…

That was it. It was over. The head pastor, when I tried to push for more, gave me a look that read disdain. Pure disdain. He was having none of it. There was no sympathy. Not for what my life was like. Not for this added chaos. Not for any of it. I can bring up the look in those eyes. I have a picture of them in my head. If I ever felt the need to remind myself how little I mattered, it’s the picture I’d go to.

The church’s response was to send me to see a counsellor. 6 separate individuals told me I should go see this woman. I thought it was a sign from god. More likely, it was coercion and manipulation. These were folks I trusted, though, so I went.

The counsellor worked out of one of the side offices near the youth pastor’s. By counsellor, I mean a woman who possibly didn’t have any official counselling training. She was your average church lady. Floral dresses. Pageboy cut. Motherly in that way that straddles the line between caring and deeply punitive—heavy on the punitive. She told me the problems with me (yes, the problems were with me, apparently) were caused by demons (no, I’m not kidding). If I wanted to extricate myself from their corruption, I had to take a course from her in spiritual warfare. It’s why, she insisted, this type of thing kept happening to me (hello passive voice, my old friend).

Why is this the worst part? Because it made a sort of sense to me. People did bad things to me because I housed a bad thing. Many bad things. Bad things that might have come to my family eons back that were passed to me via generational sins. And my own, of course. Hadn’t I used a magic 8 ball? Or done yoga? Listened to Prince? Hadn’t I had impure thoughts? If I purged all those things, and let her cut the tendrils the demons had tied to my soul, the bad things would stop. I’d also be saving my future, non-existant children from the same fate. I stuck it out until the end, through an exhaustive, multi-week recounting of every way in which I was bad.

At the end of the course, she prayed over me so the demons would be gone, taking all those pieces of me with them. Years later, I’m still trying to get some of those pieces back.

Sometimes I joke with friends about my exorcism. The idea is bizarre. It’s a shorthand for how different my reality was. I was taught that demons were coming in the cracks—and I was mostly cracks. My emotional well-being was like the San Andreas fault. I could have been a rooming house for demons, had they been a real thing. 

What stood out to me the most was the heat and the wetness of her hands when she laid them on me. That ubiquitous floral dress. The scab where she’s dropped a curling iron on her arm. My discomfort with being touched. I did it, though. I made it through the course (yes it came with photocopied homework). I let them try to get rid of what was wrong with me. I was on board. The problem was me and I was working to fix it.

When I saw the youth leader in church, I learned to turn panic into disassociation. I didn’t tell any of my contemporaries. I performed in plays and sung in choirs and dropped whatever change I could gather in an envelope to tithe for the right to share space with the man who’d hurt me. I even applied for church membership.

I could say something about how hard it is to leave abusive spaces. I could make a quip about Stockholm syndrome. Really, though, I still wanted that family. I wanted a tether, any tether, to stop me from falling away.

Do I need to tell you that they rejected me? I guess I was a liability. I was a problem child and I just wouldn’t go. Remember what I said way back at the beginning about second chances? I really believed that someone, maybe a group of someones, would make it right. They’d make sure I had a place to live and food to eat. They’d make sure I was treated like what they’d preached I was—a child of their god.

Shoot, I wasn’t anyone’s child. I was no one. I drifted off into being no one.

Within a year, I was living in a group home. That summer, I went to my first Pride event. That’s where I started to find my family, in bits and pieces. The PFLAG tent had a hug-a-mom section and suddenly there were hands around me that felt loving. I still had issues being touched, but this was like coming home. I drank. I danced. I lauged. I celebrated everything I’d been told was wrong in me.

I’m solidly middle aged now and that year feels like a death. I’ve had a few years like that. Trauma survivors often do. A version of me that believed in demons died. There were no demons. There were only people playing the part. There were only systems that tied sex to shame and holiness to gender and I had to exorcise them. I did it with theatre and sunshine yellow wall paint. I did it by slowly figuring out how to engage in community without anyone steamrolling each other. I’m still working on how to be a friend. I’m still trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.

In this case, the right thing to do is to say to my very new friend these words:

You are not alone. You are precious and brave and hilarious. I respect you so damn much. I’m glad you kicked at this door. I’m sorry you had to, and I’m sad that so many people will probably be walking through it. But we’re here together now. You. Are. Not. Alone.

And I guess that means I’m not alone either.

Regarding the Shelter at Exhibition Place’s Better Living Centre

A screen shot of a tweet by @cityoftoronto. It reads, "The City of Toronto is opening 560 new spaces between November and April to help those experiencing homelessness through out winter services plan. More space at warming centres and enhanced street outreach will also be activated during extreme cold weather alerts." There is also an imge which shows a large, warehouse like room in which glass barriers separate cots. The rooms are about twice the size of the cots. The glass walls provide no privacy. The cots resemble lawn chairs and feature a thin mattress.

This letter was written in response to a City of Toronto press release. In it, we see a photo of the proposed emergency shelter at at Exhibition Place’s Better Living Centre. This is being offered as a no-choice alternative to Toronto’s tent communities. I will be sending this letter to the Mayor and my council representative.

Dear Mayor John Tory,

I’m writing today to ask you to reconsider your current plan to house people experiencing homelessness in the Better Living Centre as it currently exists.

There is a word we come back to when discussing people who are currently without a home: vulnerable. And it’s a fair descriptor. Our homeless community includes a disproportionate amount of refugee and asylum claimants, physical and sexual abuse survivors, group home and foster care survivors, formerly institutionalized or incarcerated people, folks who were homeless as children, disabled and chronically ill people, Black, Indigenous and Persons of Colour, veterans, and members of the 2SLGBTQQIPA+ or Queer community.

When I say vulnerable, what I mean is that homeless people have inevitably experienced trauma—and they continue to experience the ongoing trauma of being discarded and neglected in a nation of plenty.

When Toronto proudly shared their vision for emergency overnight accommodations for the winter, it was clear that it wasn’t designed with the survival of vulnerable persons in mind. To suppose that all that matters is a roof and a cot is to ignore the crossroads of vulnerability that people exist at if they are homeless in Toronto. How is a rape survivor supposed to sleep in a glass box? How is a group home survivor supposed to find rest in a space where they have no privacy or autonomy? How is a residential school survivor supposed to accept this as a place to warm on a cold night when cameras, and cells, and security guards make it more like a prison?

People are not dry goods. A warehouse is not an answer. To re-traumatize already traumatized people is to lengthen the time it will take them to rebuild if and when they find housing. I know I’m still recovering, some 25 years later, from my experiences with homelessness in Toronto. I’m sure it costs more to address the after-effects of that trauma now than it would have to just make sure my rent was covered all those years ago.

You say you consulted experts to design this space, but perhaps you need to spend time—actual ongoing time—with the community members who will use it. They are the real experts in their own needs. I know if you sat down with me I would tell you that homelessness has its own gravity. Once you are close to it, an inordinate amount of strength is needed to pull away. Because of this, an inordinate amount, and quality, of resources must be provided. The bare bones approach changes nothing, save re-traumatizing vulnerable community members by relocating them to what looks more like a debtor’s prison than a community care centre. I implore you to consider this when you create spaces for your fellow human beings.

Thank you,
H. E. Casson

A New Proposal

A cement pole with 'could be fun' on it in black marker grafitti
by H. E. Casson
(CW: Pandemic, anxiety, mental illness, homelessness)

“I’ve made a deal with my anxiety,” I say to my partner.
He’s working from home, surrounded by screens. They are a living museum to all of the people he helps.
“What’s that?”
He doesn’t look up.
“I’m not going to worry about anything but keeping you and me alive and together.”

I’m a worrier, both by nature and circumstance. Before I knew him, I’d already been undone, been left unloved and unhoused. We met as teenagers and I brought him into the chaos with me. We lived nowhere, with fingers tangled together. We had no bed, but cushioned each other, blanketed each other, whispered good dreams in each others’ ears.

We sat on a balcony in a snow storm and we knew.
“This is good, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yep”
“We’re going to get married, aren’t we?”
“Yep.”
That was our proposal.

Still, I do not live with a sense of security. This house we’ve since bought belongs mostly to a bank. They might remember its more theirs than ours. Everything is temporary. Clothes wear out. Food goes bad. Cupboards can go from full to bare to someone else’s in no time flat. We could have nothing, again. We could be nowhere, again. I get that. I have to get that. I can’t count on anything.

Except him. Our balcony-promise has lasted more than twenty years. I build fences around him. Make him wear a mask. Clean everything. Put my hand on his neck and search for any trace of fever. I can prepare for losing anything — but not him.

I know that modern people aren’t supposed to love like this. It says something about my autonomy, my self-worth. But I do. I love like hunger. I love like I’m incomplete without him.

I know something else, too. All this insecurity, this planning for the worst, this anxiety, it won’t keep back a virus. The numbers say we’ll make it, but the numbers have never been friends of mine.

So this is my new proposal: if I keep my word, and keep him and me alive, I will learn to revel in good. (Yes, I know that bargaining is a stage of grief, but what’s to be lost by pointing toward what fills me up?)

If we see the end of this together, I’ll believe that we’ll always have a roof. I’ll believe that we’ll always be fed. I’ll believe that only good days are coming. I’ll stand up to my knees in Lake Ontario and shout out my happy to the clouds. I’ll overspend on birdseed and tomato plants and comfortable shoes. I’ll drink hot cocoa in the afternoon and toboggan down high hills.

If we see the end of this, I’ll have faith in our joy.

Or at least, I’ll try.

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Like Cherries

My poem, Like Cherries, is free to read at Malarkey Books. In it I explore one of the best days my partner and I had while experiencing homelessness in Toronto. It seems the right time for it to come out, as we are all of us trying to find our own best days in hard times.

Be well, and enjoy the poem.

Home is an Anti-virus

by H. E. Casson
(CW: Homelessness, poverty, illness, neglect)

I am writing this in my home. I am writing it indoors, with heat and clean water, wearing washed clothes, my skin not itching, my partner’s voice rising and falling in the next room. I am safely housed.

This is true now, but for some of my life, it wasn’t. I’ve lived in an unsafe home, a group home, a shelter. I’ve crashed on couches. I’ve slept rough, slept in my school, slept in spaces not meant for humans. I was me, the same me I am now, but alone and hungry, frantic and deadened all at once. I knew I was disposable.

Over 20 years ago, I met a person who was precious and amazing. He was disposable too. I knew him for weeks, not months or years, but I think about him all the time. He was clever and challenging, generous and creative. He caught TB in a shelter. Because of the nature of crisis-friendships, I don’t know how he is now, or if he is now, but I knew him long enough to see him fall apart. I knew him long enough to learn that illness will always come for humans in shelters, in care facilities, in prisons, in mental health wards. As long as it stays in those boxes, we don’t hear much about it.

And what can I do? I tell stories from my own limited perspective, from this warm place that coats the memories in gauze, making them less sharp. I am here in my home, safe, at least six feet from the world.

What is home, in a time like this? Home is an anti-virus. It keeps us safe. Home is personal protective equipment, covering our most vulnerable parts. Home is an avatar of community care. Home is, and should be, a right.

The Pandemic Chapbooks to Support Charitable Giving initiative by 845 Press and Collusion Books includes a poem I wrote called For Chandrahas, Who is Likely Dead. It is about my friend, about illness, and about home. If you donate to a charity — any charity — you can get a copy of the chapbook for free.

There’s a charity in Toronto called Sanctuary that is taking care of people, members of our community, at great risk and in the most challenging time possible. They are doing this in the face of immeasurable hardship and loss. I hope you will consider donating to them, and to the folks they serve.

I wish there was a way to pull all this together, to end it in a way that is satisfying, but much like the situation, there’s no easy conclusion. There is no bow to tie, just a hundred, hundred loose threads that require a communal will and concerted effort to begin to gather.

In all this, I wish us safety. I wish us a thing called home.

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How to Survive Surviving a Crisis

(CW: Pandemic, poverty, unsolicited advice)

Poet and professor Orchid Tierney has organized a virtual reading series called Distāntia. She calls it “an experimentation with intimate social distancing through remote access poetry.”

My poem is about the value that people who are often forgotten bring to a crisis. The wisdom of survival doesn’t always wear a three piece suit. Sometimes it wears a Chewbacca onesie and hides out in its blanket fort, thank you very much.

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Food To Spare

by H. E. Casson
(CW: Food, hunger, neglect)

“You eat meat?”
She asked, incredulous
I said no
Then I said yes
Sometimes
I suppose
It feeds my gut
And teases my nose
It sits in my throat
And flavours my tongue
It’s comfort food
From when I was young
And mother would feed me
A chop so big
I forgot when I tasted
That it was a pig

But then, she cares
Her eyes are wet
She is a cow, in dreams
I’ll bet
(Just look at those eyes)
So I rationalize

That I was hungry for almost a year
(No politics for that, I fear)
An empty belly made me see
That I eat them
Or they’ll eat me

And lettuce didn’t fill me up
And orange juice didn’t please my cup
But a pizza pie with bacon strips
Pleased my lips

Reminding me of mother’s chops
The happy smell in butcher shops
And times when hunger was not there
And times when I had food to spare

Published in the Meat issue of (Ex)cite (2001).
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