From swimming for Canada to the streets of London: a McGill grad's remarkable journey

·5 min read
A photo of Laraine McHendrie-Décarie on the church stoop in central London where she slept for more than four years. (Courtesy of Under One Sky - image credit)
A photo of Laraine McHendrie-Décarie on the church stoop in central London where she slept for more than four years. (Courtesy of Under One Sky - image credit)

They'd been gently nudging the kindly woman who slept on cardboard boxes outside a central London church to accept temporary lodging for some time.

Over a bowl of soup one snowy Monday in February, said Vicky McGarrigle, "she looked up at me and said: 'I am tired.'" The answer was finally yes.

McGarrigle helps out with a charity called Under One Sky, which aims to help people who are homeless in the United Kingdom, particularly in winter. And the woman on the stoop was Laraine McHendrie-Décarie.

She's a former Montrealer.

In fact, McHendrie-Décarie's a McGill University graduate — in 1990, with a social work degree earned with distinction — who once represented Canada as a national-level swimmer.

These days, she is living in a London hotel thanks largely to a crowd-funding initiative piloted by McGarrigle and her friend Monica White. It has raised nearly $70,000, and McHendrie-Décarie has dreams of soon finding a permanent home.

Laraine McHendrie-Décarie was homeless in central London for four-and-a-half years, but now she's living temporarily in a hotel thanks to a crowdfunding initiative.
Laraine McHendrie-Décarie was homeless in central London for four-and-a-half years, but now she's living temporarily in a hotel thanks to a crowdfunding initiative.(Submitted by Vicky McGarrigle and Monica White)

Life is good, she says, and her aim now is "to change these situations for other people out there in the future."

McHendrie-Décarie's story is one of how suddenly life's trajectory can deviate, how carefully laid plans sometimes go awry for no good reason.

Now 64, she arrived in Canada in her early 20s to work as an au pair outside Toronto.

Soon after, she moved to Montreal and began studying psychology at Concordia University before switching fields and transferring to McGill's School of Social work.

Over the course of her 15 years in Canada, McHendrie-Décarie continued swimming competitively — back in England, she had been on the cusp of qualifying for the national team.

After a chance encounter with someone at a local YMCA pool, she joined a club in Pointe-Claire and participated in Canadian colours at the 1986 FINA World Masters Championship in Tokyo, a competition for swimmers 26 and older.

Laraine McHendrie-Décarie, middle, with friends Vicky McGarrigle, left, and Monica White, right. McGarrigle and White have helped McHendrie-Décarie, a McGill grad and former competitive swimmer, find a temporary home after years of homelessness.
Laraine McHendrie-Décarie, middle, with friends Vicky McGarrigle, left, and Monica White, right. McGarrigle and White have helped McHendrie-Décarie, a McGill grad and former competitive swimmer, find a temporary home after years of homelessness.(Submitted by Laraine McHendrie-Décarie)

McHendrie-Décarie moved back to the U.K. in 1996. She travelled, built a career, acquired an apartment. In 2014, she decided to relocate to France to teach and work for a Catholic community group.

Two years later, the bottom fell out.

She lost her identification documents, she said, then someone stole her identity. She would eventually lose her savings and her apartment.

"I ended up sleeping on a church doorstep for over four-and-a-half years," she said.

That wasn't the plan, of course. McHendrie-Décarie says it simply started as a way to pass the nighttime hours until she could get on with the business of helping herself, and others.

"Even though Laraine was homeless and didn't have anything, she was still giving and still looking after people," said White, a graphic designer by trade, who is a longtime family friend of McGarrigle's and an Under One Sky volunteer.

"A lot of these organizations and the churches relied on Laraine because of her social work qualifications and experience," White said. "She's just an uplifting person."

Laraine McHendrie-Décarie's McGill University student identification card. She graduated in 1990 and after building a career in her native England became homeless in 2016 following a stint teaching in France. She says she lost her identification documents, fraudsters stole her identity and she lost nearly everything as a result.
Laraine McHendrie-Décarie's McGill University student identification card. She graduated in 1990 and after building a career in her native England became homeless in 2016 following a stint teaching in France. She says she lost her identification documents, fraudsters stole her identity and she lost nearly everything as a result.(Submitted by Laraine McHendrie-Décarie)

McHendrie-Décarie, for her part, said she "tried to survive with the conditions that were thrown at me" and began to see her position as a case of "destiny and fate."

Lockdown measures in the U.K. to stem the spread of COVID-19 have been hard on the unhoused, as they have elsewhere in the world, including Quebec.

And her case was further complicated by changes in the rules governing pension benefits.

"I kept coming up against all sorts of things. Mentally and physically I've always been well and I didn't fit into any of the categories that we have here in England to get assistance. And I wouldn't lie," McHendrie-Décarie said.

With the help of her friends McGarrigle and White and organizations like Under One Sky, she's in the process of negotiating the various bureaucratic obstacles in her path.

"These two ladies are very special, unique people … they're like guardian angels," said McHendrie-Décarie.

'It's been such a positive journey'

The feeling is very much mutual.

"It's been such a positive journey," said McGarrigle, who is also part of an advocacy group called Minds United F.C.

And it's not over.

"We've just had so many people message us … we've just realized we can use this in a positive way," said White.

She also encouraged people to get involved with easing the plight of folks like McHendrie-Décarie.

"These are real people, with real lives and stories and more often than not they had horrendous experiences … you just take it at face value, human to human," White said. "A tea and a coffee, and just five minutes to talk is more than putting a [coin] in a cup."