Topics: Ethical Living | Opinion

I’m a poet who has lived an accomplished life. Now I live in the shelter system.

I've never had it easy, but now, I've lost everything

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Author Willi Boepple at Francis/King Regional Park in Saanich, B.C., in September. (Photo by Nik West)

Over the course of 2021, Willi Boepple sent more than a dozen emails to Broadview magazine. The letters told of life in homeless shelters and the people she encountered. Then, as the letters progressed, she shared stories of her own life.

Willi Boepple is an advocate for the homeless in British Col­umbia. She started living in shelters in her late 50s. She has worked at a mill, has a certificate to operate and maintain boilers, turbines and other power­-generating machines, and has been a goat herder for decades. She is a recognized expert on dairy goat husbandry and nutrition. She is also a published poet.

Boepple is an accomplished person who happens to live in shel­ter systems in and around Victoria. This article is a narrative of her story and her world view, taken from her many missives to this magazine.

This homeless issue is huge and complex. Why is it legal for a rich man to become richer by flipping real estate or trading money? What good does this do for society? While farmers and nurses are ending up homeless? Boys who are good at playing video games are awarded millions of dollars, while teachers are ending up on the streets.

Our society is insane.

The general assumption is that it isn’t economic factors that caused our plight but rather the fault of the homeless ourselves. We are all either lazy, irresponsible, mentally ill or addicted to drugs. Nobody wants to believe that honest, sober, civic-minded and hard-working people can lose their homes and end up on the street.


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I met a man who was homeless because he had cancer and was too sick to work. Suffering from chemo, he would lie on the sidewalk during the three-hour daily kick-outs from the shelters. I met a woman who had been repeatedly raped by her own father. Despite this, she told me that she never took hard drugs until she became homeless and ended up at a shelter.

In late January 2019, I ended up in a women’s shelter where we had to leave every morning and could not return for at least eight hours, possibly because there was a daycare next door and the anxious parents did not want their children to see us odious homeless.

It was a “dry” shelter, and it was my first real exposure to drug addicts. The nights would be rent with screams and moans of women suffering from withdrawal. Having just lost my herd of goats and left the forest, I was completely out of my element; my initial reaction was to try to help the women, but many were also mentally ill and I would be screamed at.

Willi Boepple. (Photo by Nik West)

One woman was kicking both alcohol and drugs. Our hats were off to her. In the morning she would grumpily announce, “Day 13!” and we’d all cheer; next day, “Day 14!” and we’d clap. One morning, shortly before I left the shelter, this woman and I sat on the edge of her cot. With tears in her eyes, she told me that once she was certain that her daughter and granddaughter were safe, she was going to take an overdose.

“Don’t you think your grandchildren will want to know who you are?” I asked. But it was all I could really say, having just a few weeks ago tried to hang myself. Who wants to be old and homeless? I understood her completely.

I have lost everything that meant anything to me in my daily life. I have no family in Canada. My goats were my family. We had a deep and telepathic bond. I had friends and a community; I had a place where I belonged. Now all of that is gone. I submit that I can’t be expected to be upbeat, and it is a minor miracle that I am still alive. I do my level best to get out of my head. I wrote this poem in February:

ERASURE

Little by little

Pieces are falling away

some in big dripping chunks

soaked in hot heart’s blood

some long and thin

like the steel of my independence

falling away like shattered bone,

some sort and once, close

like the shared breath of loved ones,

torn away in the winter wind, to vanish,

and some, like place,

too numb with shock to ache

in the increasingly empty spaces

of my falling away,

my erasure.


I am 62. My life has never been easy. There was always sexism in my trade, with resultant poverty and physical hardship. I lived for 22 years commuting to my herd, 19 years without hot running water, 13 years without a telephone, 12 years in campers and six-and-a-half years without even electricity or running water. I can shoot my own dinner and cook it. I also grew up in Japan, speak three languages and used to get stones thrown at me for my hair colour. My life has been variegated and difficult, but also very scenic. I grew up running in the forests and hills. For our rural upbringing, I will always be deeply grateful to my mother, who herself suffered greatly as a child.


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I used to get called out rather frequently to attend to ailing livestock when a veterinarian wasn’t available. I’ve done everything from retrieving stuck kids to humane euthanasia, post-mortem exam and diagnosis of the problem. In 2006, I was asked to give a couple of guest lectures at the University of Victoria on ethnoveterinary medicine. I have successfully doctored everything from chickens and ducks right up to horses and cattle. I am an autodidact in trace element nutrition in the dairy goat and have fielded requests for help from commercial producers as far away as New Zealand and Ecuador.

Having first milked goats at age 12, I started my own herd of registered Saanens in 1985 with the purchase of a butcher doe and her daughter. I figured anybody with money can buy a fancy, top-line animal, but it takes a breeder to make one! Out of that swollen-kneed, fat, non-milky, caprine-arthritis-encephalitis-infected doe (but I loved her), I built a herd of productive, disease-free, long-lived goats, with four permanent Grand Champions among them and three who won Canada’s highest award for a doe: Select status.

Willi Boepple. (Photo by Nik West)

In 2018, my wealthy landlord evicted me and sold his farm. Now that my beloved herd is gone, I have nothing left to live for. I exist among hard-core drug addicts in an urban shelter where I am not allowed a tea kettle in case I burn the building down. Given that I have never even smoked pot, this milieu is deeply foreign to me, and the last three years have not made it one iota more tolerable. People “shoot up” or smoke heroin right outside the window of my room.

It is traumatic just being in these shelters; to a rural person, it is like suddenly finding oneself on a dirty and malevolent strange planet. No wonder some people start taking drugs after they become homeless.

I apologize for being so gloomy. I really wasn’t always this way. I love goats, for their minds. They are open, inquisitive, intelligent and quirky. If there is one molecule of fun to be found in any given situation, you can count on the goat to find it. The goat will, after browsing a bit amid lush greenery, suddenly spring into the air and kick out her heels just for the joy of it. Their joy is infectious.

I used to take the Hairy Lot out on long roams; sometimes we went up Lone Tree Hill, near the Saanich Inlet, from the eastern side. The goats would walk to the very edge of a dizzying drop and gaze out; you could feel their deep delight at being so high up, a thing innate to all goats. Then they would leap madly and cavort.

As I wrote in a song:

High above the inlet, among the whirling goats,

Leaping to the rhythm of dancing hooves on moss;

Looking at the eagle’s back as she flies below,

Listening to the raven’s call — KWOW!

falling on the wind!

I like to play this song on my guitar. Sometimes I yodel (I’m Swiss). Here is a poem from the happy years in the little cabin on Pease hill, on Vancouver Island:

NIGHT ON THE RIDGE

Patterns of light and shadow

Trees and other trees

touched in places by moonlight

Stand motionless;

black limbs reach across the night

interlacing

with a maze of ground shadows.

The spirits press round,

watchful,

and down across the valley

beyond the glowing moss

an owl begins to call.

The trees exhale.

I toss my head, burning

where the night horns sprout,

the goat joy takes hold;

the spine uncoils

and I am off,

dancing through the luminous web

of interwoven worlds.


When I can stand to, I go to the weekly bingo session at the shelter, and if I win any coffee gift cards, I give them to a would-be horticulturalist who is homeless. On the streets since he aged out of foster care, he is addicted, no doubt to drown the despair. I watch him scrabbling in the polluted earth, trying to start a vegetable garden. This kid just wants to be a farmer. He breaks my heart.

Last I checked, everybody eats. If I had a farm, I’d take him in in a minute; get him clean, get him his own cottage and his own garden. And veggies won’t bawl if you don’t milk them at 7 a.m.!

One day while sitting at bingo, I thought of the leafy green moving light in the forest, and I couldn’t help a tear sliding down my cheek. A worker came over and asked me if I wanted a different bingo card. She thought that was why I was weeping.

***

Willi Boepple describes herself as a “lifelong farmer, seed­stock breeder, naturalist, writer, illustrator, hunter, steam­power engin­eer, curmudgeon and elderly spinster.”

This story first appeared in Broadview’s December 2021 issue with the title “Falling Away.”


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  • says:

    In the first part of your article, I thought of Solomon's questions in Ecclesiastes. He asked the same questions and concluded that without God in the picture, "All is vanity".
    Under your Erasure title, I was troubled by your bitterness towards your "wealthy landlord". Were you bitter before they evicted you or content? Were you bitter because they were wealthy? Or were you bitter because you didn't foresee your future plans if the current situation changed? We all surmise that things will go on as it does now. Covid has opened quite a few eyes, I hope most will learn not to be content to let life "ride".
    I know little about you and can only form what seems a bias opinion in your short narrative, but it seems you wish to be a social loner. This is not a good life choice for anyone.
    Finally you talk about life without God, this too is not a good life choice.
    Life isn't fair, Psalm 73 proves that, God being as gracious as He is, "rains on the just and the unjust" (Matthew 5:45) He is as patient with you and me, as He is with a thief or Kim Jong-un.
    As Christians, we are to let God bring justice and vindication,
    difficult as it is.
    If we look at the overall picture, this brief time we have here on earth is nothing. If we don't have Christ, our future is even bleaker.