Charlotte Smith found herself homeless at 15 as she battled addiction. Now in her early 30s, she has turned her life around, earned her high school diploma, and has become a dedicated advocate for people experiencing homelessness.
For the past three years, Smith has performed outreach work to support homeless youth while also pursuing her masters of sociology degree at Carleton University.
During that time, an Ottawa horse farm has been her place of refuge, where she first found work about a decade ago.
"I'd only been off the streets a couple of months and I ended up getting a job here," said Smith.
"Every day that I walked into this barn and fed the horses here, at that time, it was just a reminder to me and an encouragement to fight to stay off the streets and to fight every day to not fall back into old patterns, and just keep trying harder and harder to get better."
Smith recently moved to live beside the farm and she can include the horses in her work with homeless youth.
"I'm able to bring young people here and have them work with me here and teach them about the horses ... and benefit from the same sort of healing that I found in horses."
Challenges on the road to recovery
The farm reminds Smith how far she has come. Next month, she will defend her masters thesis, which Smith says feels "surreal," but that path has presented its share of challenges.
Many post-secondary students found school challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, while Smith took on the additional challenge of providing support to unhoused youth who were struggling.
"I was doing emergency COVID support, food delivery," Smith said, and things were going OK, until she "just crashed."
"I took a really hard relapse ... I started using heavy drugs again every day."
Relapse is a temporary and normal setback, Smith said, which many people experience on the road to recovery. The feelings of guilt and shame devastated her, though. She said she felt overwhelmed with sadness knowing there were countless other youth out there waiting for help.
"It's so depressing and heartbreaking when you have young people reaching out to you every day for food and for just to have their basic needs met ... seeing the devastation on their faces and the hardships they're going through, it just is really soul-sucking."
Smith has since worked hard to bounce back from her temporary setbacks, and says she has done well since the start of 2021.
"I got back on track ... I've gotten back to my school work."
She says she has since returned to supporting youth, but has taken a different approach — no longer going to the front lines meeting youth where they were.
"Now I'm sort of trying to take it a little bit easy at the farm and, you know, bring youth here into my healing space as opposed to going out there."
People can learn a lot from horses, says Smith. "They're so gentle and so kind, and they're all about community."
"Everybody deserves a chance to be around these animals if they want to."