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.
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:
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 soft 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,
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.
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
black limbs reach across the night
with a maze of ground shadows.
The spirits press round,
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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Sheldon LeGrow says:
Yes, our society is insane. With the Covid event I have realized just who the important folks are in our society. We can get by without hockey players or baseball players who earn millions of dollars but we can't get by without supermarket clerks or workers and we can't get by without trash collectors...many of whom earn minimum wage. We don't really need cell phones to make our life easier. What is so important that you can't wait until you get home to do? I look on TV at the absolute silliness and realize that the days of good entertainment are over and I shake my head at the thought of silly people making big bucks for looking dumb.
I think of researchers, doctors, university professors and teachers who just make a living when those who don't contribute to a better society earn much more.
What has become of us? And I have learned that those of us who are unfortunate enough to do something stupid or make a mistake and become part of the justice system are no longer forgiven when we serve our sentence. Our story becomes part of the public record, as an official of CBC told me, and therefore is placed on the internet where it sits for years and years and can ruin anyone's chances of starting over or getting a decent job.
Accomplished people, talented people, those with necessary skills who can think and build a better society are cast aside in favour of silliness and superficiality. Our society is in decline. We shall expire with a whimper and we will all have our headphones on, playing with video games when it happens. Two of the better examples of our march to oblivion are those who choose to do little or nothing to fight climate change as well as the anti vaxers who choose to spread their breath droplets in public places and care nothing for their fellow humans that they could infect. Yup. The world is on the brink and those who care are outnumbered by those who don't.
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.
Philip Boepple says:
I may be short a brain, or just have extreme difficulty in locating things or in finding things. So I am left to ask: Where, did Willy "finally talk about life without God"? Our whole socio-economic society is without God..... That's why what ever is vain, superficial, or arrogant gets favored over what is honest, sincere, hard working and in need of a job. The corporate, socio-economic forces that be, do seem to often favor the Godless. But where did Willy mention life without God?
Lynn sapp says:
how does one make contact with Willi ? can one write to her ?
her situation touches my heart so deeply.
Lorrie Beauchamp says:
Wow. This is a very powerful and moving account of Willi's current situation. She is an incredible writer and poet, and I'm wondering how we can help her. As a fellow writer, is there some way I can assist Willi in sharing her story? So many people need to read this.
I'm currently focusing my writing work on stigma and addiction. Willi's situation touched my heart and it feels as if the universe wants me to reach out.
Let me know how I can help, and thank you for giving her voice a home!
I was touched by Willi's article and impressed by her poetry and her writing and other skills. Her potential is being wasted by this dog-eat-dog society in which we live. In this respect, she is like too many of us in Canada.
What happened to the idea of a guaranteed basic income? I had hoped that more social justice would come about as a result of the covid epidemic, but I was wrong.
Let's remember Willi's story and the thousands of similar ones when the next election comes around,
Sheldon LeGrow says:
There is no certainty in life. In a moment our lives can be changed, sometimes for the better; often for the worse. There are many talented and gifted people living from hand to mouth and it's a travesty that quite often those who have the most to offer in the creation of a caring and just society are victimized and pushed aside in favor of the frivolous and superficial.
Society today is unforgiving. Make a mistake and you find yourself on a Facebook comment or a news story and these things don't go away. They follow you for the rest of your life. Find an affordable apartment and find that six months later your rent increases to the point that you can no longer afford it. Work for a company for twenty five years and they suddenly close down and you're left with no pension. And if you have to live on social services you can be reduced to living in places with bedbugs or other infestations with hardly enough for your basic needs.
This lady's story is indicative of many in our society. We have to do better to ensure that everyone can live in dignity with enough resources to provide a meaningful life. Prayer needs to be followed by action. The teachings of Jesus and those who taught similar ethics and values need to be made real in Canadian society.
Philip Boepple says:
Very strong and moving energy in Willy's renditions of her struggles and perseverance. Job well done. I too, feel that those who have very much to offer, get pushed off to the side in favor for the frivolous and superficial, the empty, hallow, and the vain. Yup, without God it is, our society is falling down. Even many who claim as God followers often turn out rather frivolous, superficial, empty, and vain. I have encountered people who are that way, but Willy is not that way, hence she ends up where she is and gets blamed for it. Society seems to more favoring towards the vane, the superficial, the hallow and the Godless. Yep, it IS "a sign of the times".
Willi Boepple says:
You must be God- - - -you judge so much about me without knowing the situations or the people involved (e.g. the RICH landlord)!
And EXCUUUSE me if one of my poems sounds "bitter". After a lifetime of honest, grueling work, not to mention solving livestock health and predator problems for people, I was literally betrayed and lost everything that meant anything to me in this physical world. The article kept out the most gruesome bits; the last three years have been an emotional dismemberment.
Now as a homeless old woman I am regarded as a dysfunctional, lazy, addicted, morally bankrupt and stupid "problem". I have only death to look forward to.
Lastly: excuse me for not wanting to parade my relationship with God before strangers. Doesn`t mean I don`t have one! Flaunting one`s faith is ego stuff.