I wanted to go where I could do the most positive damage.
A little help from a friend
Colin Mulholland went from homelessness to finding a place where he belongs at UAlberta.
By BRIDGET STIRLING
How do you go from being homeless to being a university student?
Colin Mulholland isn’t your typical undergrad. At 48, he’s a second-year student working toward a BA in native studies. Although most of his peer group at the university are in their twenties, he feels like he’s in exactly the right place at the right time.
Getting here has been a circuitous route. In 2005, after the loss of his marriage, Colin became homeless. Like many people who end up living on Edmonton’s streets, he has a mental illness: Colin lives with dysthymia, a type of chronic depression. He also had a lifelong substance abuse problem, using alcohol and marijuana. But more than that, Colin says, his problems came from a feeling of disconnection. “I didn’t know where I fit in the work world, or even in the world. I gave up.”
That feeling of being lost led to seven years of instability and homelessness. Colin sought support through a number of Edmonton agencies, as well as government programs such as Henwood Treatment Centre and Alberta Works. It was an Alberta Works worker he met while staying with friends in Spruce Grove who initially built a relationship with Colin and suggested he return to school in Edmonton.
Having someone see the potential in him opened Colin’s eyes to a new possibility: becoming a social worker and returning to the inner city where he’d lived for so long, so he could help people like him find new possibilities. Colin explains with a smile, “I wanted to go where I could do the most positive damage.”
But going back to school was a daunting thought. Colin struggled with the idea of returning to school as a mature student with a complex life history. Would he be able to keep up with the demands? Would he fit?
One ally can open the door
That’s when he met Jared Tkachuk, who was the first social worker with the Edmonton Public Library outreach program. Now a regular service in Edmonton’s core area libraries, at the time the program was a pilot project formed through a partnership between EPL and Boyle Street Community Services, a United Way supported agency. The role of the outreach workers is to support at-risk Edmontonians through literacy, education and social support. Many people who are living with poverty and homelessness feel safe and secure in the library, making it an ideal place for workers to connect with people in need.
Colin knew Jared from a previous role the social worker had held with another agency, and he knew he could trust him as a friend and ally. Jared offered a conversational, mentoring relationship that opened the door for Colin to speak about his fears of attending post-secondary for the first time in his life. Having that person to believe in him supported Colin to take the next step.
Gathering his savings from a summer living and working at an organic herb farm as well as money from doing five years’ worth of tax returns, Colin took the next step and started classes at Norquest. With family support, scholarships and honoraria for serving on the student council and with other student groups, he worked his way through to his social work diploma. But he wasn’t done yet.
A new sense of belonging
Through his experiences with social service agencies, Colin came to recognize how many Indigenous people felt marginalized in those systems. He felt that many people working in the social services wanted to help but didn’t have an understanding of Indigenous culture and experiences. The next step was clear: he would apply to the U of A and major in native studies.
As a student, he’s beginning to see some exciting possibilities for making positive social change after graduation. He’s currently in a drama class with a community service-learning component, working with the GeriActors community theatre group based out of SAGE (the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton). Colin is interested in ways he can bring his social work diploma and his university degree together in a community theatre context with the idea of “creating something that breaks down dichotomies and the things that keep us from talking.”
His studies in Cree are an important part of that goal. “I want to become fluent in Cree to understand culture,” he explains, noting that he wants to break down the sense of alienation many Indigenous people feel when seeking help from organizations—something he says causes an imbalance in access to services.
These days, he’s continuing to rebuild his own sense of belonging. After so many years, it’s hard for him to feel that he has a home, even now that he has an apartment that he shares with McMurphy, his cat. “It doesn’t feel like mine, but I’m making moves to try to claim it.” With the continued support of student mental health services on campus, his friends and the staff in the faculty, and his determination to build a more just and inclusive world, Colin has found where he belongs.