Karen Brooker sits at her small kitchen table with a mug of coffee in her hand, and a big smile on her face.
She moved into a bright, one-bedroom apartment over a week ago, and says after being homeless and living in a Moncton shelter for six months, she feels relief.
"The first morning I woke up I was dancing in my kitchen," she laughed. "Even though I don't have much, it's still a home."
CBC News first spoke with Brooker in November, 2019 when she was living at the House of Nazareth emergency shelter. She and her roommate had lost their downtown apartment when the property owner renovated and raised the rent.
With no affordable or subsidized apartments available, Brooker spent more than six months sleeping in a shelter dorm with other women, some of whom were using drugs and alcohol.
Eventually she feared for her safety, and turned to couch-surfing rather than staying at the shelter.
Brooker was thrilled when she was offered a temporary, subsidized apartment by the Moncton YWCA. She receives a disability cheque of $763 each month and pays rent equal to 30 per cent of her income, which is $225 a month.
Living in a safe, affordable apartment is "100 per cent better," than the shelter.
"Just having my own privacy is amazing. The stress level has definitely gone down."
Thankful for help
Brooker said after her story was reported by CBC News, a stranger contacted the Moncton YWCA and paid her first month's rent and damage deposit to allow her to move in immediately.
"Whoever you are, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart," she said. "I thought it was a miracle … you know to think that someone actually helped me was amazing because I've been through such a struggle in the last year or so."
Brooker said the extra money has helped her to set up her new place, and buy cleaning supplies and other necessities like garbage bags.
"This being the first month here, I spent quite a bit on groceries and I still don't have everything I need because it's expensive out there," she said. "But I have more than what most people have so I'm thankful for that."
I think that the way that the system is run, it's broken because there's people in the shelters that need help and they're not receiving it. - Karen Brooker
She spent about $150 at the grocery store and is enjoying eating what she wants, when she wants.
"I'll tell you it's some nice to be able to cook your own meals. It's just nice to cook what you want to eat — I find that's quite amazing in itself."
Now Brooker, who is on the waiting list for an N.B. Housing unit, is hoping she will soon get a call that a permanent apartment is available.
Her current apartment is furnished, and pets aren't permitted. But an N.B. Housing unit would allow her to have her cat, Sassy Girl, and take her belongings out of storage.
"She's my companion," she said of her pet who is staying with friends. "I'm just praying that whatever place I get I can bring my girl with me 'cause she means so much to me."
As someone who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, Brooker said she doesn't get depressed as often when she has Sassy Girl with her.
'The system is more broken than I thought'
Looking back on her time in the shelter, Brooker has learned a lot of lessons.
"I've learned that … even though I'm struggling the way I am, that there's a lot more struggles out there. And I think that the way that the system is run, it's broken because there's people in the shelters that need help and they're not receiving it."
Brooker talks about an 80-year-old man she met at the shelter who she believes should be in a special care home, and others who are in need of mental health supports but not receiving them.
"I wouldn't wish it on my enemy," she said of her six months at the shelter. "Believe me I don't ever want to go back."
During her time at the House of Nazareth, Brooker saw many people move out, only to return.
"You know they got a place. They were only gone for a couple of months and then, poof, they're back."
Brooker said people would try to survive paying market rents but most couldn't do it.
"People just don't want realize how much of a struggle it is. You know when you're only getting $900 or $700 and you're paying that much in rent, there's no way and it's as if the landlords are putting the rents up so high that we can't afford them anymore."
Affordable housing dominant issue
For Fredericton MLA and Green Party Leader David Coon, housing is the number one issue raised by his constituents and has been since he was elected.
"That dominates," he said. "And it's been the case year after year since 2014."
Coon said while it's great when people "come out of the woodwork" to help people like Karen Brooker, there are many more with similar stories who aren't getting that same attention.
"It's so important that people understand that there are so many people in comparable situations. So we need systemic change."
Coon said the focus of the Higgs government must broaden and goals such as "growing the GDP" or "debt reduction" should only be part of a larger strategy.
"We need to get to a government that says, 'No, the well-being of New Brunswickers, particularly the most vulnerable and our children is at the centre of everything we do.'"
While she was in the shelter, Brooker said there was no one there helping the residents to find a way out.
"They don't help guide you or show you where to go. You've got to figure it out on your own."
Now that she is on the right track, Brooker plans to return to the shelter to volunteer and help those who are still there.
"Even though I'm in the predicament I'm in, I'm always trying to help others," she said.