Baring her soul
Photo: Suzanne Rent
Debra Paris Perry remembers being tired. She was living on the streets, doing what she says women often need to do when they are feeding addictions. One day in 2012, while she was digging through an ashtray for cigarette butts and living the regret of spending too much money on her addiction the day before, she decided she was done with it all.
“I thought, ‘You know what? I don’t want to do this anymore.’” she says. “I didn’t give it up for medical reasons. I was tired of running. I was tired of worrying who was coming through the doors and windows. I got really tired of the whole thing.”
Paris Perry found a place to live via a program that provides homes for women in transition. She got herself into an adult learning program at the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre on Gottingen Street. She focused on the sciences and math, subjects in which she excelled in school.
Then she started raising money to take a veterinary administrative assistant program at Eastern College and eventually work at a clinic. She knocked on doors of local churches and outreach centres, eventually getting the $7,000 she needed to pay tuition. She even got funding from the Department of Justice.
“I said you will pay $30,000 a year to lock me up in the correctional centre, but you won’t give me $3,000 so I can change my life?” she says. “Where is the correction there? They gave me the money.”
After graduation, she tried to find a job working in a vet clinic, but had no luck (she thinks due to her criminal background). Then in 2013, community activist Charlene Gagnon approached her to work at the Uniacke Square Community Development Centre and iMove, a community resource and hub.
Gagnon needed someone who knew and understood the people who lived in Uniacke Square and around Gottingen. Paris Perry did her one better. She said she would work there for six months via a program at the YMCA that would pay employers to hire her. “I got hired here not in spite of my history, but because of my history,” Paris Perry says.
Gagnon first met Paris Perry at Stepping Stone, a program that supports sex-trade workers in the province. Even then, Gagnon saw Paris Perry’s potential and recommended she sit on the organization’s board. Gagnon was working as program manager the day when she saw Paris Perry on the street, and asked her to work for them.
Gagnon said it didn’t take long for her and executive director Sobaz Benjamin to see what Paris Perry could bring to the organization.
“After the first three months, we said, ‘We need you here. You can’t go anywhere,’” Gagnon says. “She’s caring, giving, and trusting of people, but at the same time, she knows the streets really well. She’s trusted as a straight shooter. She will tell you exactly what she thinks.”
Gagnon calls Paris Perry a “stern mother type,” even to her. “She’s my mama,” Gagnon says. “She’s my Mama Deb and she’s always there.”
Three years later, Paris Perry is still there working as an outreach coordinator, connecting youth to programs in the city. Currently, she has seven kids in the business school at Saint Mary’s, two others are in a transition year at Dal, and one is a sophomore at SMU.
Paris Perry knows these kids well. She calls them her kids. They call her Miss Debbie or Nanny Debbie. She knows they can do better, go back to school, and change their lives. She goes to their graduations and says she feels the same pride and “tingles” she did when she graduated from Eastern College.
“If a 60-year-old crack whore can get one of these, you guys should be able to breeze through this stuff,” she says she tells her kids. “There is no reason you shouldn’t be running around with some type of diploma, if I can get one.”
She also hosts weekly lunches at the Centre, stretching her $50 budget and making the food herself for up to 60 people.
She speaks at local universities to students studying social work and therapy. She shares her story with them, and wants them to ask her questions about anything. She wants them to have a better understanding of the pasts of people who have similar histories as hers.
“That’s why I go out there and bare my soul,” she says. “I know there is not an opportunity to talk with someone like me. If one hears, then I’ve done my job.” Paris Perry has a big laugh, an easy, approachable manner, and looks far younger than her 62 years. In her office on Gottingen Street a stray cat named Fluffy that the Centre rescued crawls over the back of her chair, and onto her computer keyboard, trying to eat her breakfast muffin.
She didn’t give up her dream of working with animals. She helps pet owners with holistic methods of healing their furry companions. She doesn’t charge for her services, but asks for donations to help her continue helping other pets. Or people give her art supplies for her jewelry-making business.
She says she never expected to live past 50, fighting what she calls “The War” and living on the streets. But she says she’s always working on being her best.
“I am pretty pleased with myself,” she says. “It doesn’t mean my life is all of a sudden roses and stuff. I still struggle, not so with addiction as much, although there are days when I think about it. I think the support of the neighbourhood has really done a lot for me. I think what I have learned is that people with history have that to give. They have something to teach. They have learned it. They didn’t read it in a book.”
In her job and in her community, she sees others who are tired, too, just like she was that day in 2012. She offers whatever she can: a bus ticket, a can of soup. But she also offers them advice and an understanding ear from someone who’s been there.
“You have good days and bad days,” she says. “Just don’t stay in the bad days too long.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.