When Peggy Allen first moved into her Abbotsford home in September 1989, it was a secluded location, the perfect spot to raise her two boys.
“I used to think it was quite beautiful,” Allen says from the top of her driveway, before adding: “I still do.”
Nearly three decades ago, she says, there were few buildings nearby besides the grain elevator and the Salvation Army property.
“We bought this half-acre because obviously we wanted a creek and we wanted some privacy. We wanted them (the boys) to be able to run and whatever. It was very different back then,” Allen says.
Turning off Gladys and onto Allen’s driveway is like entering a whole new ecosystem at first – everything seems a bit quieter, more peaceful under the canopy created by parallel rows of trees that line either side of the long corridor.
About 50 metres deep, you’ll find an enclave shrouding Allen’s home amid what is otherwise often a busy scene. Beyond the envelope of trees, cars drive at high speeds to and from Highway 11, and a neighbouring property houses the Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope. The shelter and soup kitchen are part of what make Gladys Avenue a hub for the local homeless community.
Allen says the issues didn’t start for her until around 2004, when a plan to move the Salvation Army to its current location – which formerly housed the Fraser Valley Child Development Centre – came to council.
“That’s when they invited up to 30 of us in the neighbourhood to come and speak at the council meeting, and they actually passed it, I think, that night before midnight. We were all against that, of course, but they passed it anyway,” Allen says.
“That’s what brought the homeless situation to our particular street. It had been all over town. I’m sure it still is, but that was the beginning.”
‘It just never ended, what went on’
Peggy Allen appeared at numerous city hall meetings and says she's spoken with four successive mayors in an effort to mitigate issues she's faced with the local homeless population. Last year, Allen's mindset inverted and she now works with the homeless community. Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News
“Our whole history in this house – everything our family relates to – is based on what happened with the homeless at the time. Every Thanksgiving something happened,” Allen says from a rocking chair in her living room.
She gives the example of her granddaughter’s fourth birthday, nearly a year after the toddler moved in with Allen, when they threw a party in their backyard with friends and family. As she carried a tray of vegetables, someone entered the front door of her home and chased her to the back porch.
As she ran, she slipped on some water on the porch that had splashed out of a kiddie pool. She landed on the cement and wound up in hospital with a neck brace.
“So anytime she (her granddaughter) talks about her fourth birthday, that’s what she relates it to.”
Allen’s frustrations were such that she kept a daytimer dedicated to documenting her 400-odd calls to the police, and the family spent nearly $10,000 on fencing and cameras.
“The anger I had was based on the bureaucracy more than the homeless, because addiction is something, in my opinion, and mental illness, that brings a lot of people to the street. They are out there because of that situation, and my anger was based on the bureaucracy that would not do anything to change it. They’d give it lip service, but nothing happened ever,” Allen says.
And life at home brought Allen its own compounding stresses – dealing with her son’s illness, her husband’s back surgeries, her own heart condition, working two jobs and helping to raise her granddaughter.
“It just never ended, what went on, and you can imagine. So I was very angry. It was a huge problem and it was starting to affect my life,” Allen said. “It got to a point where my whole physical health, mental health, my financial health, my family situation was pretty much destroyed.”
‘I do not like who you’ve become, Peggy’
In June 2018, Allen was walking toward Gladys Avenue when a woman in her driveway swore at her.
“I lost it. I went running down there. I just didn’t know what I was going to do, but I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Allen says, but as she ran after the woman, a switch flipped and she stopped in her tracks.
“I realized, ‘I do not like who you’ve become, Peggy,’ and turned around and I went back home.”
That was one of the first signs of what would be a massive paradigm shift for Allen. Over time, she would go from “victim to vigilante to volunteer,” she says, before correcting herself: “Volunteer is an easy way to put it. I am definitely a vigilante on the other side.”
By summer 2018, Allen had been to countless meetings with city hall, trying to get the situation resolved. But it was a meeting on homelessness at city hall on July 17 that would catalyze Allen’s change in attitude.
“I just lost it. I got up, I made a complete fool of myself, and I was so angry. I had to tell them the way it was because I live here. They don’t know what it’s like,” Allen says, her frustration creeping back into her voice.
“They don’t know what it’s like to try to sleep at night when, right outside my fence, someone’s being raped because they’re coming in the back here to go to the bathroom so they have privacy … It’s just endless.”
After that meeting, a couple of officials with the Fraser Health Authority approached Allen to ask if they could come and talk to her. At first, she declined, but later agreed to meet in two weeks.
When they met, Allen told the Fraser Health officials her story, but continued to push back against an offer for a follow-up call to see how she was doing.
“I said, ‘Just don’t, because you can’t help me,’ ” Allen says.
‘So much courage’
Peggy Allen attendes a Business Engagement Ambassador Program committee meeting, one of the ways she is now involved in working to advance the status of Abbotsford's homeless community. Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News
The Fraser Health official broached the subject with Amanda Bonella, program co-ordinator of Drug War Survivors (DWS), a group whose membership includes many people who are homeless or with lived experience of homelessness.
“She (the official) said, ‘I had this woman come. I met this woman, and she’s really upset, and she’s been really upset with the city for a really long time,’ ” Bonella says of how Allen’s situation landed on the radar of DWS.
Bonella brought the issue to the next regular DWS meeting, asking the general membership what they could do to try to reconcile their relationship with Allen.
“We did a brainstorming exercise for almost the entire meeting about what we could do,” Bonella says.
At first, suggestions were a bit more grandiose, from cleaning her yard to repaving her driveway.
“We were like, ‘That might really freak her out if we show up at her yard with a bunch of tools,’ ” Bonella says.
Eventually, the membership landed on something more modest: Two members approached Allen’s home with a conciliatory plan for Allen, and listened to her story. After that introduction, the DWS members invited Allen to speak at the next DWS meeting, an offer she declined at first.
“Then I thought about it,” Allen says. “I thought, all of a sudden, as I was walking down the driveway, ‘I can’t. I can’t deal with this problem anymore. It’s killing me and my family.’ I needed to find a solution because I am a solution-based person.”
When she agreed to speak at the DWS meeting, Allen says she thought there would be 10 people present. Instead, it was about 10 times that, all strangers to her.
“When she came to that meeting, it was, first of all, so much courage that she did that. I think there were 100 drug users in that meeting, and she came in and she got up in front of all of them,” Bonella says. “It was incredible … You could hear a pin drop.”
‘She had half the room in tears’
In February, Peggy Allen marched down her long driveway not to chase away members of the local homeless community, but to stand up for them when their tents were taken down during extreme weather designations. Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News
“I just don’t know what happened,” Allen says of speaking at the DWS meeting.
“Something happened to me, and I just clicked into who I was originally, and I shared my story,” Allen says – a story harkening back to her childhood in 1960s Regina, Sask.
“My father was a raging alcoholic. He shot himself when I was seven … He was brilliant. He was kind. But when he was drunk, he was horrific, and we went through a lot of horror – especially my mom.”
Allen says her whole family has been affected by addiction, something she has come to see as not simply caused by drugs or alcohol, but about a wide array of factors, such as trauma, poverty or mental health.
“So, I got up and I just talked about my story. And I talked, actually, about stuff I have never talked about publicly. I don’t even know why; it just came out of my mouth,” Allen says.
As she spoke, the crowded room – a wide, open basement room – was enraptured by her story.
“She had half the room in tears,” Bonella says. “At the end of it, people were lined up to hug her. It was a very emotional experience that we all had.”
But for Allen, it was more than an emotional experience: “After that meeting, I had an epiphany, for sure. Absolutely … My life changed that day at the Drug War Survivors meeting.”
Everything was inverting for Allen. At the same time, a group was meeting to devise a program intended to mend relationships between the homeless and business communities, titled BEAP – Business Engagement Ambassador Program.
After the meeting, Bonella invited Allen to attend a BEAP committee meeting.
“I didn’t want to just be like, ‘OK, thanks. See you later,’ right?” Bonella says.
‘Nothing’s changed but me’
Dustin Godfrey/Abbotsford News
Allen now attends the weekly BEAP committee meetings in a room at city hall, just one of the things she’s involved with to try to advance conditions for Abbotsford’s homeless community.
“Now, I am solution-based, opposed to problem-based. Solution is good-feeling. Problem is bad-feeling,” Allen says.
“Nothing’s changed out here. That’s the cool part. Nothing’s changed but me.”
Indeed, everything has changed for Allen, even if the world around her hasn’t. Her frustrations, previously stacked so high they had begun to topple with rippling effects for her family and her health, have largely dissipated. She feels she’s truly able to live her life.
“I feel joy again, for the first time in years. I sleep through the night. The same stuff is going on out there, and you can hear it everywhere. I don’t hear it, honestly,” Allen says.
Even many of her family and friends have a hard time buying it, she adds.
“They have seen the damage that has been done to our family. So they don’t want to believe that; they don’t even want to hear it. As time goes on, they’re starting to hear more and listen more. I say that to them: I don’t expect them to understand the way I feel – even my own kids. I don’t expect you to be on board, either,” Allen says.
“I made it clear that this is a no-zone for anybody in the homeless world because my kids can’t handle it. And they have a right to that.”
The change is notable in Allen’s voice. When speaking of her past troubles with the local homeless population, a residue of tension is barely audible. But when the discussion turns to her current life, she more readily laughs, exposing a deep sense of relief, a freedom from the shackles of her own frustrations.
As Allen flips through her daytimer, pages crowded with her frustrated scribblings suddenly give way to a blank slate as she hits September 2018. No longer bound by her own anger, Allen even feels empowered by her change in heart.
“What’s happening here is just – it’s actually shameful. And we can make a difference. But it takes people with money, and it takes people with heart, and it takes people that want to be solution-based,” Allen says.
“We need to make a difference, and I personally know that the difference in my life has been huge since I changed my mind. It was like a switch on the wall for me.”